Guide to Privacy Laws in the United States
Privacy law is about your personal data and information, your physical space, and your identity.
Most privacy laws are state-specific, so look to your state laws for the specifics (we hope to eventually include each state’s laws here; for now, here’s California privacy law). That said, most states follow the standard that you have privacy rights in situations where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as in your home. Generally you don’t have privacy rights as to what you do in public (anywhere the public has access).
1. Privacy & the Internet and Social Media
2. Privacy & Other People
Can people take pictures and video of me without my consent?
Although specific privacy and surveillance laws vary by state, the general rule is whether or not you have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in a particular location. Note that the legal definition of reasonable expectation of privacy may not match your own! The general rule is that people do NOT have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public places, but they do in private places. What is public vs private can be difficult to determine in certain cases, but generally anywhere the public has access to is considered public, and everywhere else would usually be private.
So if you are in a public place, then most likely yes it’s legal for other people to record you. If you are inside a private home, even an AirBnB, it is likely a violation and invasion of privacy if there are cameras recording you without your consent. But cameras on the outside of the house are generally legal.
What is considered an invasion of privacy?
Privacy laws that do not fall under a specific category, such as identity theft, may be considered under one or more of 3 general categories of privacy issues:
- Intrusion on physical or digital space: you have a right to protection against unwarranted intrusion upon your solitude and private affairs; sometimes called “intrusion upon seclusion”
- Public disclosure of private information: you have a right to protection against the public disclosure of embarrassing or personal facts about your private life that is not already known
- Portrayal in false light: You have a right to protection against publicity that falsely makes you look bad, even if this does not amount to defamation
Using a person’s likeness (aka “right of publicity”)
The right to prevent others from using your likeness for commercial purposes is sometimes considered a privacy right, but it’s more of a “right of publicity.” But you don’t need to be a famous celebrity to have publicity rights! In general, you can’t use another person’s “likeness” for a commercial purpose (to make money) without their permission. “Likeness” generally includes a person’s image, voice, name, signature, or anything else that would identify a particular person. This is called the “right of publicity” or the “right against appropriation.” For example, you can’t take a photo of someone to use in an ad campaign unless the person agrees to “release” these rights (often for a price).
See more at our Guide to Marketing & Merchandising.
Newsworthy exception: Exceptions to both “right of publicity” and the rights of privacy are when the subject is “newsworthy” or in the public interest.
Invasion of physical space
If someone is in a place which you have possession over, such as your home, without your permission, this is trespassing. It may also be “intrusion on seclusion.”
Publicizing private information
It is generally illegal to publish embarrassing or personal information that is not already known to the public.
Portrayal in false light
It is generally illegal to publish information that would make someone look worse than they really are.
3. Privacy & the Government
What are my privacy rights with regard to the police/government?
You have the right to be free from “unreasonable” searches by the government/police of your body or anything you are wearing, your home, and some other personal areas.1U.S. Constitution, 4th amendment. Also see Brinegar v U.S. (1949) This essentially means that before law enforcement is allowed to search you, they (usually) must convince a judge that they will find evidence of a crime in the search, and if the judge agrees, he/she will issue a warrant.
For more specifics, see our Guide to Laws About Police Conduct.
Can the government collect and store bulk records on all Americans?
No. Under the Patriot Act, the National Security Agency used to have the power to collect records in bulk, such as when the government required Verizon to turn over all of its millions of customers’ phone “metadata.”2metadata includes the number dialed, how long the call was, etc., but generally not the content of the call But they can’t do this anymore, under the USA Freedom Act.
4. Privacy and Companies
What are the rules with regard to corporations and my private information?
See our Guide to Consumer Rights.
5. Medical records
Do my health care providers or other professionals have the right to share my medical information with others without my permission?
Generally, no. They must protect the privacy of your medical records.3U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 45, Sec. 164.508 The relevant law is called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and here is a fun example of a violation.
See more about health related issues at our Guide to Healthcare Law.
6. Mail & Email
Is it illegal to read someone else’s mail?
Is it illegal to read someone else’s email?
If you have accessed the email account without permission, this is likely considered illegal hacking, and/or invasion of privacy (intrusion on seclusion).