Privacy Law in the United States of America (US)

The Supreme Court of the US (SCOTUS) has carved out the right to privacy from various provisions of the US constitution, particularly the first, fourth, fifth, ninth and fourteenth amendments to the US constitution. The Court has included the right to privacy in varying contexts through an expansive interpretation of the constitutional provisions. For instance, the Court has read privacy rights into the first amendment for protecting private possession of obscene material from State intrusion; the fourth amendment for protecting privacy of the person and possessions from unreasonable State intrusion; and the fourteenth amendment which recognises an individual’s decisions about abortion and family planning as part of their right of liberty that encompasses aspects of privacy such as dignity and autonomy under the amendment’s due process clause. 

The right to privacy is not expressly provided for in the US constitution. However, the Court identified an implicit right to privacy, for the very first time, in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) in the context of the right to use contraceptives/ marital privacy. Since then, the Court has extended the scope to include, inter alia, reasonable expectation of privacy against State intrusion in Katz v. United States (1967), abortion rights of women in Roe v. Wade (1973), and right to sexual intimacy between consenting adults of the same-sex in Lawrence v. Texas (2003). 

The US privacy framework consists of several privacy laws and regulations developed at both the federal and state level. As of now, the US privacy laws are primarily sector specific, instead of a single comprehensive federal data protection law like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Canadian Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). However, there are certain states in the US like California that have enacted comprehensive privacy laws, comparable to the GDPR and PIPEDA. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) which came into effect on January 1, 2020 aims to protect consumers’ privacy across industry. It codifies certain rights and remedies for consumers, and obligations for entities/businesses. One of its main aims is to provide consumers more control over their data by obligating businesses to ensure transparency about how they collect, use, share and sell consumer data. 

Besides the CCPA, Nevada (SB-220) and Maine (LD 946) have also implemented privacy laws around the same time on October 1, 2019 and July 1, 2020 respectively. However, these privacy laws are limited and narrower in scope as compared to CCPA as Maine’s privacy law covers only residents that subscribe to broadband internet services and Nevada does not cover offline services. The CCPA, on the other hand, covers California residents generally and is applicable to all businesses collecting consumer data online as well as offline.

Several other US states are also in the process of implementing privacy laws for example the Massachusetts Data Privacy Law, New York Privacy Act, Hawaii Consumer Privacy Protection Act, Maryland Online Consumer Protection Act and North Dakota’s HB 1485. Further, there are federal privacy laws for some specific sectors such as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, 1999 (GLBA) for finance, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, 1996 (HIPPA) for healthcare, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 1974 (FERPA) for privacy of student education records, and Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, 1998 (COPPA) for children’s privacy. 

Our database covers summaries of recent and landmark/key judgments from the SCOTUS on privacy from the year 1965 to 2018. To access these summaries, refer to our page here. We have also compiled a list of key laws which impact right to privacy in the US. To access our page on US privacy laws, click here.

Disclaimer: Our case summaries cover only the privacy aspects of each judgment. Other legal issues that may have arisen in these cases have not been summarised by us.

The Federal Court Structure

The US Constitution creates a federal system of government in which power is shared between the federal government and the state governments. Both the federal government and each of the state governments have their respective court systems

The US federal court system is a three-tiered structure comprising district courts (the trial court), circuit courts (first level of appeal), and the SCOTUS, the final level of appeal in the federal system. The SCOTUS has the final say on questions of the interpretation of the United States Constitution and statutes passed by Congress. All other courts, both federal and state are bound to follow any precedent set by the SCOTUS. State courts are bound to follow precedent set by the SCOTUS and by the Federal Courts of Appeals on issues of federal law.