Many years ago Judge Louis D. Brandeis defined the right to privacy as "the right to be let alone." While his summation was "eloquent in its simplicity," the authors of this useful and alarming survey note that legally "it offers no guidance at all." Indeed, because privacy is not mentioned in the Constitution, the extent to which we have a right to be let alone is open to a variety of interpretations. While a welter of state and federal statutes and judicial decisions do recognize some kinds of personal privacy as protected behavior, many other elements of our lives are not protected at all. A growing number of organizations and authorities, from our employers to the federal government, are increasingly and insistently invading our private lives and arguing that they have a right or obligation to do so. In response, more and more individuals are suing.
The Right to Privacy is a report from the battlefront. The authors, both attorneys, use recent cases and court rulings to evaluate the current state of privacy, to describe where our rights end. They consider such areas as privacy and law enforcement (under what circumstances, for instance, do police have the right to conduct a strip search?), privacy and the self (the question of privacy is, as they remind us, at the heart of the legal battles over abortion rights), privacy versus the press's right to know (how much, and under what circumstances, can the press reveal about a private individual?) and personal privacy and employers (under what circumstances can an employer be justified in asking, say, whether or not we believe in God, or what our sexual orientation is?). The authors' description of cases and rulings are models of clarity, often quite gripping. The conclusion that emerges from their careful exploration is that we are witnessing a "general erosion of privacy." Given that fact, the book is a helpful, even necessary, guide to the extent to which we can expect to be let alone, and a warning about the ways in which our right to privacy is almost constantly under assault.