What Privacy? The Impact of the UK Human Rights Act 1998 on Privacy Protection in the Workplace

Bernd Carsten Stahl


There is general agreement that privacy is an important value that is worth protecting. The agreement does not extend, however, to the definition of privacy, its limits or the way it should best be protected. Much debate in the field of computer and information ethics deals with the conceptual foundation of privacy with regards to information and communication technology. This debate is often of a high conceptual and philosophical level of sophistication. At the same time it tends to neglect the crucial question of implementation. Clearly, if privacy is to be protected in a democratic society, then laws and their enforcement have a role to play.

Most western countries now have statutory privacy protection regimes in place. There is much debate among legal scholars concerning the consistency and coherence of legal approaches. Privacy protection legislation can be passed at different levels and for different purposes. Different statutes provide for different means of privacy protection and create diverging exceptions.

There are different research disciplines with an interest in privacy. Apart from the two just outlined very briefly, namely computer ethics and law, there are many others. Privacy is of importance for online commercial exchange and it is an important factor in the creation and maintenance of trust. Furthermore, privacy is an interesting field of study for criminologists who discuss the concept in their own field. Sociologists can be interested in privacy as well as economists. Briefly, there is a plethora of discourses on privacy. Many of these discourses overlap to some degree but they also tend to be held without much cross-fertilisation.

In the proposed paper I intend to contrast two of these discourses, namely the computer ethics and the legal one. The purpose of this approach is to show that the different approaches can enlighten each others’ shortcomings. I will start with a discussion of privacy and its normative foundations and justifications as we know it from the field of computer ethics. This review of the literature will show that there are several competing understandings and meanings of privacy that display subtle but important differences.

In the second step I will use the English legal system to investigate how privacy protection is legally supported. The emphasis will be on the Human Rights Act 1998, the first English statute that expressly introduced the concept of privacy into English law. That does not mean, however, that there are no other statutory ways of protecting privacy. Two of the dominant ones are the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Looking at statutory as well as case law, I will argue that the notion of privacy underlying the ECHR is different and wider than the notion of privacy underlying traditional English law.

This argument will show the value of interdisciplinary research on privacy. Using the conceptual differentiations developed in the computer and information ethics field will be shown to be able to contribute to our understanding of legal manifestations of privacy. The paper should thus be understood as a call to further cross-disciplinary work in the area of privacy.