Infringement of privacy is a complex and difficult issue involving diverse meanings in different cultures. At the simplest level, unwanted intrusions on one's immediate situation of being alone or with family is a violation of privacy. The intrusion may be the physical presence of others or the noises one does not wish to hear. Degrees of privacy depend on the proximity of the intruder which is largely culturally defined. In some activities an important aspect of privacy is the freedom from observation, such as when praying, defecating or having sexual relations. In this vein privacy may be violated by being compelled to observe things which are offensive. While not every intrusion is a violation of privacy, the line is difficult to determine at any given moment because of shifting social expectations and the increasing interaction between people of different cultures.
A second dimension of infringements of privacy is the dispersion of private information about persons. Observations and physical intrusions may also be means of obtaining information that the individual wants to keep secret. When information about a person is obtained against his or her will, either by coercion or by force, their right to privacy has been violated. When another person divulges information to a broader audience, or their information has been taken, privacy has been violated. The right to privacy in some societies has been extended to include the freedom from inaccurate or misleading information being spread about an individual.
A third dimension of the infringement of privacy is lack of autonomy in making private decisions. While this is perhaps the most debatable dimension, it is, for example, acceptable by many legal and social systems for a married couple to choose whether to use contraceptives or not. The right for a woman to choose to terminate a pregnancy is argued as a right to the autonomous making of private choices.
Different legal systems emphasize different aspects of the right to privacy; many claims to privacy are hard to distinguish from claims to respect for personal integrity, to personality, and to freedom from interference from government and other external agents. Litigations concerning violated rights of privacy may arise between celebrities or public figures and the media, particularly sensationalist tabloids. Under some countries' laws, public figures such as heads of state or royal families appear to have less rights to privacy than other people, as everything concerning them may be deemed legitimate news.
In 1993, the City of Tokyo faced unexpectedly strong resistance from residents on the requirement for see-through garbage bags, an aid in separating burnable from non-burnable rubbish. It was not the new rules that appeared to cause upset, since Tokyo residents already dealt with a variety of garbage regulations. Rather it was the issue of privacy. Since the Japanese have elaborate social rituals for maintaining the illusion of privacy in the face of forced togetherness, displaying their household garbage for all to see violates some deeply felt sense of social order.
New technologies are increasingly eroding privacy rights. These include video surveillance cameras, identity cards and genetic databases.
Police services, even in countries with strong privacy laws, still maintain extensive files on citizens not accused or even suspected of any crime. In 1998 there were investigations in Sweden and Norway, two countries with the longest history of privacy protection for police files.
Companies regularly flaunt the laws, collecting and disseminating personal information. In the United States, even with the long-standing existence of a law on consumer credit information, companies still make extensive use of such information for marketing purposes.
According to opinion polls, concern over privacy violations is now greater than at any time in recent history. Uniformly, populations throughout the world express fears about encroachment on privacy, prompting an unprecedented number of nations to pass laws which specifically protect the privacy of their citizens. Human rights groups are concerned that much of this technology is being exported to developing countries which lack adequate protections. Currently, there are few barriers to the trade in surveillance technologies.
It is now common wisdom that the power, capacity and speed of information technology is accelerating rapidly. The extent of privacy invasion -- or certainly the potential to invade privacy -- increases correspondingly. Beyond these obvious aspects of capacity and cost, there are a number of important trends that contribute to privacy invasion: (1) Globalization removes geographical limitations to the flow of data. The development of the Internet is perhaps the best known example of a global technology; (2) Convergence is leading to the elimination of technological barriers between systems. Modern information systems are increasingly interoperable with other systems, and can mutually exchange and process different forms of data. (3) Multimedia fuses many forms of transmission and expression of data and images so that information gathered in a certain form can be easily translated into other forms.