Etzioni Says Privacy Not Sacred

Former professor advocates public over individual good

Big Brother is watching--and, according to Amitai Etzioni, author and former Harvard professor, that may not be such a bad thing.

Etzioni, who served as Ford Foundation visiting professor at the Harvard Business School from 1987 to 1989, spoke to a small group of faculty and students yesterday afternoon in the Fainsod Room at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG).

A professor at George Washington University, Etzioni is the founder and director of the Communitarian Network, an advocate for community welfare.


Although many Americans tend to treat privacy as an "absolute" and "historical" right, it is sometimes necessary to compromise privacy for the public good, Etzioni said

Addressing the subject of his latest book, The Limits of Privacy, Etzioni explained when and why it might be necessary to curtail individuals' privacy rights.


Etzioni discussed several instances in which privacy rights are an issue-including the testing of newborns for HIV, the disclosure of names of local child molesters and the release of medical records.

Although mandatory HIV testing of newborns would be an invasion of the mother's privacy because it would reveal her HIV status as well, Etzioni said he felt the decision was clear.

The choice is between the privacy of the mother and the life of the child and the life of the child must win out, he said.

Although he said "Megan's Laws"--laws requiring community notification when sex offenders enter the area-are less clear-cut, Etzioni again argued that privacy should be compromised for the public good.

But Etzioni said he did not stand behind the new "Stephanie Laws," which hold sexual offenders in mental institutions after their release from prison.

"This shows you what happens when you have a Mickey Mouse law that speaks to the public's fears but doesn't solve the issue," he said.

Etzioni also discussed the privacy of medical records, which he said should be protected.

He concluded his address with a discussion of biometric identifiers, computer devices with the capacity to recognize people by biological features.

Computer companies already have the capacity to gather information about their computer's users, and some are already abridging privacy rights, he said.

Microsoft Windows includes an identifying number that could potentially be used for this purpose, he said.

The question of whether to compromise personal privacy often comes down to what we fear most-societal problems or an oppressive government, Etzioni said.

In the discussion following the lecture, Richard Sobel, a research fellow at Harvard Law School, opposed several of Etzioni's assertions, challenging that Etzioni was too ready to surrender privacy rights.

"Generally, I disagree with his premises because I think that we can solve social problems effectively while respecting people's rights, including privacy," he said. "That is the real challenge."

Michael J. Bocian, a second-year student at the KSG who spent two years helping Etzioni do research for his book, invited him to speak at the school when he learned the professor would be in the Boston area.

"There are a number of important public policy issues involved in his work," Bocian said.

Recommended Articles