Right to Informational Privacy

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Right to Informational Privacy: The Landmark Case of Vivares vs. St. Theresa’s College (STC)

Vivares vs. STC, decided by the Supreme Court on Sept. 29, 2014, remains to be the authoritative matter on online social media posts, privacy settings, and the greater policy and basis for the writ of habeas data and the right to informational privacy. 

The case involves high school students of St. Theresa’s College Cebu, who posted photos of themselves in their underwear, photos at a bar with alcoholic drinks, on Facebook, with “Friends Only” privacy settings. These photos came to the attention of the school administration, who sanctioned the students as per the school’s student policy. As part of the students’ penalty, the students were not allowed to attend their graduation rites. 

The parents of the students filed petitions for habeas data with the RTC Cebu City, which denied their petition, thus the petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court, claiming that STC Cebu violated their children’s rights to privacy with the collection of the Facebook posts and use and extraction thereof without their consent.

The Supreme Court in this case first laid out the purpose of a writ of habeas data under Sec. 1 of the Rule on the Writ of Habeas Data: 

“The writ of habeas data is a remedy available to any person whose right to privacy in life, liberty or security is violated or threatened by an unlawful act or omission of a public official or employee, or of a private individual or entity engaged in the gathering, collecting or storing of data or information regarding the person, family, home and correspondence of the aggrieved party.” 

The court further described the writ of habeas data as an independent and summary remedy designed to protect the image, privacy, honor, information, and freedom of information of an individual, and to provide a forum to enforce one’s right to the truth and to informational privacy. It seeks to protect a person’s right to control information regarding oneself, particularly in instances in which such information is being collected through unlawful means in order to achieve unlawful ends. The writ of habeas data exists to safeguard the rights of an individual freedom from abuse in the digital information age in that context.

There are three aspects to privacy, as cited in the case: 1) locational or situational privacy, referring to privacy that is felt in physical space, which may be violated by trespass and unwarranted search and seizure; 2) decisional privacy, referring to the rights of individuals to make certain kinds of fundamental choices with respect to their personal and reproductive autonomy; and 3) informational privacy, relevant to this case, the right of individuals to control information about themselves.

Does one retain informational privacy when you join social media networks such as Facebook? Does it matter if you set your privacy settings to “Friends Only” as in the case at bar? In other words, did the minors limit the disclosure of the photos such that the images were kept within their zones of privacy?

The Supreme Court in this case said, no. That the photos are viewable by “friends only” did not help the students’ case. The Court stated that the digital images under this setting still remain to be outside the confines of the zones of privacy in view of the following:

  1. Facebook “allows the world to be more open and connected by giving its users the tools to interact and share in any conceivable way;” 
  2. A good number of Facebook users “befriend” other users who are total strangers;
  3. The sheer number of “Friends” one user has, usually by the hundreds; and
  4. A user’s Facebook friend can “share” the former’s post, or “tag” others who are not Facebook friends with the former, despite its being visible only tohis or her own Facebook friends.

In short, setting a post’s or profile detail’s privacy to “Friends Only” is no assurance that it can no longer be viewed by another user who is not Facebook friends with the source of the content. Had it been set to “Me Only,” the results would have been different.

The Court goes on to state that internet users should be cautious and exercise sound discretion regarding how much information about themselves they are willing to give up. By entering or uploading any kind of data or information online, users are automatically and inevitably making it permanently available online, the perpetuation of which is outside the ambit of the users’ control. 

“The individual’s desire for privacy is never absolute, since participation in society is an equally powerful desire. Thus each individual is continually engaged in a personal adjustment process in which he balances the desire for privacy with the desire for disclosure and communication of himself to others, in light of the environmental conditions and social norms set by the society in which he lives”, says Alan Westin, Privacy and Freedom (1967) cited by the Court in the beginning of this case aptly described the tug and war of privacy and social media.