Many words used in legal contexts and in courts around the world have Latin roots. Habeas Data is a Latin phrase that literally translated means, "We command you have the data." The right to a Writ of Habeas Data is a constitutional right granted citizens in many countries, primarily those in South America. At its most basic, habeas data is intended to protect the right to privacy and accuracy of a citizen's personal information that is stored in a central data registry.
The rights guaranteed under habeas data vary somewhat from country to country, but the principle remains the same. An individual has the right to know what data is being stored in any registry. Interestingly, in most cases, it is irrelevant whether the registry is a private or public registry. In addition to the right to know what data is being stored regarding an individual, he or she also has the right to request that any incorrect data be removed, rectified, or updated. In the digital age, the right to habeas data is bound to expand and gain importance.
The mechanism for exercising the right to a writ of habeas data will also vary by jurisdiction. In some countries, the writ must be filed directly with the highest court in the land, while in other countries, the writ may be addressed to any competent judge. A judge will review the writ and generally order a hearing to determine if the individual's constitutional rights have been violated. If a violation is found, the judge may order the data to be corrected or stricken from the database altogether.
The writ of habeas data is relatively recent in conception, although it is gaining recognition rapidly around the world. It was first introduced in Brazil in 1988 as part of its new Constitution. The countries of Paraguay, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, and Columbia quickly followed Brazil's lead and incorporated the right into their Constitutions as well.
Complaints filed by an individual to a Constitutional Court have existed as long as courts have existed. Other common complaints include the Writ of Habeas Corpus, which directs that a person held in custody be brought before the court to determine if the detention is legal. Others are the Writ of Mandamus, which is used by a superior court to direct a lower court to do, or refrain from doing, something, and a Writ of Amparo, which protects rights other than physical freedom.