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What Is Invasion of Privacy?

It probably seemed like a great idea when a well-regarded suburban school district decided to loan its students laptop computers for the entire school year, even permitting the students to take the laptops home. The students, however, were unaware that the laptops were armed with internal anti-theft protection that allowed school district personnel to activate the laptops' webcams anytime without the consent or knowledge of the user. The school district used this anti-theft function to take thousands of pictures of its students studying, speaking to family members, and even sleeping.

The so-called "Webcamgate" scandal resulted in a Pennsylvania school district paying a six-figure sum to settle the invasion of privacy lawsuit against it. While Webcamgate would have seemed far-fetched in the 1980s and 1990s, today and in the future, we can expect technology to continue to challenge our right to privacy, making understanding this right essential.

The Basics

Invasion of privacy is the unjustifiable intrusion into the personal life of another without consent. However, invasion of privacy is not a tort on its own; rather it generally consists of four distinct causes of action. States vary on both whether they recognize these causes of action as well as what elements are necessary to prove them, so you should be sure to check your state's laws or consult with a lawyer before bringing a legal action.

The four most common types of invasion of privacy torts are as follows:

  1. Appropriation of Name or Likeness
  2. Intrusion Upon Seclusion
  3. False Light
  4. Public Disclosure of Private Facts

Below, you'll find explanations and examples of each of these causes of action.

Appropriation of Name or Likeness

Appropriation of name or likeness laws protect your right to control the use of your own identity for business or economic purposes. Typically, these claims involve the unauthorized use of a person's picture or name. While state laws vary, the elements necessary to prove appropriation are generally as follows:
  1. The defendant (the party being sued) used the plaintiff's (the party initiating the lawsuit) name, likeness or identity;
  2. The use was for the defendant's benefit, whether the benefit is economic or otherwise;
  3. The use was without the plaintiff's consent; and
  4. The use caused injury to the plaintiff.

Intrusion Upon Seclusion

Intrusion upon seclusion laws protect your right to privacy while you are in solitude or seclusion. This right extends to you or your private affairs. For example, it's an invasion of privacy for a neighbor to peek through your windows or take pictures of you in your home. Likewise, it's also an invasion of privacy to use electronic equipment to eavesdrop on a private conversation. The general elements of this tort are as follows:

  1. The defendant intruded into the plaintiff's private affairs, seclusion or solitude; and
  2. The intrusion would be objectionable to a reasonable person.

The defendant does not need to communicate the details of the intrusion to a third party; once the defendant has committed the intruding act (and the plaintiff proves the necessary elements), the defendant is liable for invasion of privacy.

False Light

False light laws protect your right to not have potentially misleading or damaging information about yourself publicly disclosed. This includes the disclosure of information that may be true but is nonetheless misleading or damaging. For example, it may be an invasion of privacy if a caption published with a photograph in a news article about a protest describes a person as a participant, when in fact, the person was only observing the protest. Generally, the elements of false light are as follows:

  1. The defendant publicly disclosed information about the plaintiff;
  2. The information placed the plaintiff in a false light; and
  3. The false light would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.

Many states also require the plaintiff to prove that the defendant acted with actual malice, so be sure to check your state's laws or consult with a lawyer if you believe you may have a claim.

Public Disclosure of Private Facts

Public disclosure of private facts laws protect your right to keep the details of your private life from becoming public information. For example, publicizing facts about a person's health, sexual conduct, or financial troubles is likely an invasion of privacy. While state laws vary, the general elements of this tort are as follows:

  1. The defendant publicized a matter regarding the private life of the plaintiff;
  2. The publicized matter would be highly offensive to a reasonable person; and
  3. It is not of a legitimate concern to the public.

To publicize a private matter, laws generally require that the private information is disseminated in such a way that it is substantially certain to become public knowledge.

Learn More About Invasion of Privacy Claims

If you believe you have suffered an invasion of privacy, it's important to seek out the help of a qualified lawyer. Filing a legal claim protects your rights and can compensate you for the emotional and mental distress the invasion caused as well as for any financial or reputational harm you suffered as a result. Speak with a defamation attorney to learn more.

Next Steps
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