The right to privacy can be defined as an individual’s right to be free from public intrusion as well as the right to be left alone. Although it is never explicitly mentioned within the text, the right to privacy is a concept that is deeply ingrained in several amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It was developed through a number of important Supreme Court cases.

Today, however, the majority of privacy protections stem from various federal and state privacy statutes. Also, if a particular statute does not mention a private right of action, an individual may be able to sue for invasion of privacy based on one of four distinct causes of action grounded in tort law.

In addition, as technology advances, so does the need for privacy protections. Many countries have attempted to satisfy this need by creating legislation that spans the entire globe. Accordingly, some individualized privacy rights also come from international laws or policies.

Finally, unlike the rest of the world, the U.S. has yet to enact a federal privacy law. As a result, many states have had to fill this gap by not only enacting state statutes that offer privacy protections for individuals, but were also forced to implement many overlapping laws as well (e.g., data protections, cybersecurity regulations, etc.).

Thus, if you believe your privacy rights have been violated, there are a number of different privacy laws that may apply to your case. To learn more about your legal rights under those laws, you should contact a local lawyer who has experience in handling privacy matters.

When Can a Person’s Privacy Rights be Violated?

In general, the right to privacy was borne out of a need to protect citizens from government overreach.

For example, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides protection against unreasonable searches of a person’s property, body, personal belongings, or other areas that they would reasonably expect to keep private from law enforcement officials. This is why the police almost always need a valid warrant to legally perform a search of a person’s home.

A person is deemed to have the most privacy rights when they are at home or while they are situated on their own property. These rights begin to dwindle as a person moves from their home into more public spaces or situations that require lesser protections.

Depending on the law that applies to a case, a person may experience a violation of privacy when a government actor interferes with their constitutional rights, or when a private individual commits an act that constitutes an invasion of privacy.

Some examples of privacy violations include the following:

  • A federal agency may infringe on an individual’s right to privacy when they disclose certain personal records from a government database without obtaining consent first;
  • When law enforcement conducts an unlawful seizure or search (e.g., warrantless search or seizure where no exceptions apply);
  • Websites that collect data on minors who are thirteen years old or younger are in violation of a specific privacy law known as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”); and
  • An individual may be sued for invading a person’s right to privacy when they intrude upon a person’s private affairs in a manner that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person (e.g., attempting to spy through a closed curtain, climbing a tree to take photos of a person sleeping in their bedroom, installing cameras in a private restroom, etc.).

In addition, some states like California make it a crime for a person to illegally invade a person’s right to privacy. For instance, a person may be charged with criminal invasion of privacy in California if they secretly record or take photos of a person changing clothes in a secluded room (e.g., a dressing or fitting room).

It should be noted, however, that there is no private right of action for the victim in the above scenario. In other words, only a prosecutor can file charges under this statute.

A defendant who is in violation of privacy charges like this one may receive a harsher punishment, such as having to pay up to $2,000 in fines (as opposed to only $1,000 for a first-time offense), and receiving a jail sentence of up to one full year (as opposed to the standard imprisonment of 6 months in jail).

What Laws Protect a Person’s Right to Privacy?

Aside from various constitutional amendments, there are numerous federal and state statutes that aim to protect a person’s right to privacy. For instance, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”), is a federal law that governs how and when health care providers or insurance companies can share and store an individual’s medical information.

This protection is especially crucial now that electronic items such as Fitbit and Apple’s Health app exist and allow users to share their information with providers.

In addition, some of the most important state laws concern the four legal actions listed under the primary tort of invasion of privacy. Although the requirements may differ depending on the state, they generally allow a private individual to sue another when:

  • A person intrudes on their private affairs (i.e., intrusion upon seclusion);
  • Someone publicly discloses private facts about them to a third party (i.e., public disclosure of private facts);
  • A person publishes sensitive information about them that places them in a “false” or misleading light; and
  • Another person uses their identity (e.g., name or likeness) for personal gain.

More recently, the state of California passed a law known as the California Privacy Rights Act (“CPRA”), which strengthened and expanded a state law that was enacted the year prior, the California Consumer Privacy Act (“CCPA”). These two laws combined are arguably the strongest privacy regulations in the country and may have long lasting effects that shape the future of privacy legislation in the U.S.

What Are Some Legal Consequences for Violation of Privacy?

The legal consequences for privacy violations can vary widely from case to case. For example, under Section 3 of the federal Privacy Act of 1974, the penalty for violation of privacy in a criminal matter may lead to fines of up to $5,000 for willfully and knowingly gaining access or requesting a record concerning a certain individual based on false pretenses.

In contrast, the penalty for violation of privacy in a civil matter under the Act may result in an actual damages award, attorney fees and other litigation costs, an order to amend or correct the plaintiff’s records, and an order to grant the plaintiff’s request to access their personal records.

Again, legal penalties for violation or invasion of privacy are largely based on the type of legal action that was filed as well as the applicable laws. Some other potential consequences may include compensating a plaintiff for losses incurred by a violation, having to amend various security policies or settings (especially in a public place of employment, such as a public school), and/or complying with an injunction issued by the court.

Lastly, some legal consequences may overlap with penalties that stem from other areas of law. This is especially true in cases that involve privacy and constitutional rights. For example, under the Fourth Amendment, a defendant in a criminal case may be able to get certain evidence against them dismissed if it was obtained illegally through an unlawful search or seizure.

To learn more about the legal consequences for violations or invasions of privacy, an individual should consult a local privacy attorney as soon as possible.

Do I Need an Attorney if I Believe my Privacy Rights Have Been Violated?

Although many privacy rights are already rooted in the U.S. constitution and decades of case law, privacy is still a growing area of law due to technological innovation. As technology continues to advance, the need for stronger individual privacy protections is more than apparent and the only way to keep up is to constantly amend existing regulations.

Thus, for now and until the U.S. implements a better legal framework, it may be in your best interest to consult a local government lawyer for further advice if you believe your privacy rights have been violated. A lawyer who has experience in handling privacy matters will be able to review the facts of your case and can determine whether you have a viable claim. If so, your lawyer will also be able to assist you in preparing an argument and filing the necessary legal documents.

Additionally, your lawyer can explain what rights you have under the most current privacy regulations, can discuss alternative options for legal recourse, and can assess your chances of collecting damages based on any harms you suffered. Your lawyer can also provide representation in court and can help make sure that you receive the fairest outcome based on the circumstances.