Do individuals have a divine right to privacy? Individual privacy is sometimes defended as a God-given right in the rising global debate on the issue. But Professor Amitai Etzioni, author of the new book, The Limits of Privacy, said individuals can and must give up their privacy for the good of society. For example, if a child comes into a hospital with signs of abuse, the doctor sets in motion an investigation that violates the privacy of the family to protect the safety and welfare of children.

"Most people instinctively feel that privacy is to be cherished, but we do not feel the other half of the equation — the need to give up privacy for the good of society," said Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University and a leader of the Communitarian Movement during a March lecture at the Wharton School’s SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management.

One way to characterize traditional privacy tradeoffs is to ask whether you fear the Mafia or FBI the most (unchecked individual self-interest versus unchecked government intrusion). Etzioni’s said there is now a third threat. The cookie-chomping Internet and other information technology, surreptitiously sweeping up vast quantities of personal information and shuttling it swiftly from machine to machine, is perhaps the broadest and most insidious challenge to personal privacy. "I fear Microsoft more than the Mafia or FBI, because Microsoft put a secret window into our computers that allows them to see how you think," he said. "It is open season when it comes to the private sector, even without discussing electronic cookies."

Sometimes, as in the case of the buying and selling of customer medical information by large drug stores and pharmaceutical makers, individual privacy may be eroded without a strong benefit to the common good. "Millions of records are systematically harvested for purposes that have nothing to do with the public good," Etzioni said. On the other hand, a decision by regulators in almost every U.S. state not to use blood taken from the heel of newborn children to test children for AIDS may be a case in which individual privacy was weighed too highly, at the sacrifice of the common good.

Although the right to privacy is not absolute, policymakers should find ways to achieve community goals with as little sacrifice of privacy as possible. For example, when New York City installed video cameras at intersections to reduce traffic fatalities from drivers running red lights, the ACLU protested this was an invasion of privacy. The cameras were redirected to photograph only the license plates of the cars. The public good was served with a minimal intrusion on the privacy of citizens. "It is not a zero sum game between individual rights and the common good," Etzioni said.

Global issues add to the complexity of the discussion, said Stephen Kobrin, multinational management professor at Wharton during a panel discussion following the presentation. "Who is the community?" he asked, noting that Europeans are regulating privacy issues on-line much more aggressively than the United States. "Global networks require global solutions."

Other discussants pointed out that the concept of the "public good" is often used to justify extreme intrusions on individual rights. Thomas Donaldson, director of Wharton’s ethics program, pointed out that Singapore’s leaders shut down newspapers and curtailed many other rights in the name of lifting the nation out of poverty. Ian Lustick, chair of the political science department at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that "Political conservatives are concerned about privacy when it comes to gun control but discount privacy when it comes to birth control or abortion."

Tradeoffs are rarely simple, said Penn bioethics researcher Pamela Sankar. One way of assessing the common good is to use empirical studies to determine how individuals actually perceive the need for privacy and the tradeoffs for the public good, she said. But Etzioni cautioned that if government dictating policy can lead to totalitarianism, basing decisions entirely on public opinion can lead to mob rule. "The community can have 100% agreement to lynch people," he said. "The community cannot be the ultimate arbitrator."

The assertion of absolute rights to individual privacy is not as big a concern as the erosion of our expectations for privacy, said Penn law professor Anita Allen-Castellitto. A public that is mesmerized by new technology and inured to exposure by tell-all books and confessional talk shows may have deadened its sensitivities to the need for privacy.

All the panelists agreed that, in a society facing rapid technological and global change, we have a lot of work to do in clarifying privacy issues. "Throughout human history, technological developments have outpaced societal and value developments," Etzioni said.