The right to privacy is rarely far from the headlines these days, be it the continued fallout from the Edward Snowden leaks and high-profile hacks or the potential for new technology to invade our private lives.

The prevailing opinion seems to be that as we put more and more of our personal life into the often very public online world, our right to privacy is being simultaneously eroded. Little by little every day, sometimes voluntarily and other times by force, the ability to keep private information to ourselves is being taken away.

A common (and crucial) misunderstanding here is that these invasions call for a massive overhaul of privacy law. Every time a new technology like wearables or drones advance closer to mainstream adoption the call goes up to slow technology and limit progress.

As the federal government treads slowly to assess these frequent calls to overhaul the law, states have been pressed into action to appease their citizens. This has brought about a patchwork of privacy law that actually makes it harder for comprehensive change to occur on a national level, if and when it is needed.

In reality, though, our privacy rights are enshrined in law and have been there for us to access all along; it’s down to the individual to use them when rights are violated but often ignorance or an unwillingness to commit to a lengthy legal process curb that motivation. The right to privacy and legal solutions to enforce it already exist but they’re like muscles, you need to use and exercise them to keep them strong and useful.

Balancing privacy and justice

Image Credit: Hugh D’Andrade

Rather than laws becoming outdated it’s the technology and how we understand its impact on our private lives that has changed. The general public, with the help of the legal professionals who serve us, are the ones who need to keep up with technology and how it permits others to invade our lives, or access information that should remain private.

Of course vast companies like Google and Facebook must be held accountable for their role in sharing our private data, especially when lengthy T&C agreements and complicated privacy settings muddy the waters as to how much we’re actually putting out there into the online world. Google has fallen short of its responsibilities in the eyes of Europe, for example, leading to the widely-used “Right to be Forgotten” law. U.S. lawmakers have thus far erred on the tech side of that debate, but that would quickly change if a significant portion of the population decided to explore their online rights.

Every avenue that we pursue in terms of thinking about improving privacy leads us back to the source, the individual user. Educate and empower everyone to employ the same common sense online that we would use in the physical world and you go a long way to make it a lot harder for hackers, cyber activists, or any number of other attacker threats that endanger our digital private lives.