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Home > Privacy Fundamentals > Differences Between Government and the Private Sector > Different Laws

Different Laws

The fact that governments collect information using the force of law cannot be emphasized strongly enough. When a government agency or program needs personal information to carry out its mission, that information will be collected. Individuals have no choice in the matter. This is not the case with businesses, who must bargain for the information they want.

An important upshot of this is that consumers are more often allowed to remain anonymous or use fake names when dealing with businesses. As long as one is not committing fraud, the penalty for lying about one's identity to a business may be that a transaction is not completed. When dealing with government, however, anonymity or pseudonymity is often impossible, illegal, or, at the very least, suspicious.

Accountability in government gives rise to privacy problems not found in the business world. The public can and should have access to information that governments collect in order to keep government accountable and because the information was collected using public funds. Open records, a hallmark of open government, can often mean that information citizens have been compelled to disclose becomes public. As a rule, databases held by businesses are not subject to becoming public records. Market conditions apply to their sharing of data. This makes it easier for customers to demand privacy measures and confidentiality procedures.

In lieu of a healthy system of incentives, governments respond to a patchwork of privacy laws imposed on themselves. These laws do not evolve and respond to change as contract rights can, and as the privacy torts can in common law courts. Government privacy practices move in fits and starts, as new uses of information expose loopholes in government privacy protections.

Also, because governments are only subject to the laws they make for themselves, information held by governments even if private "by law" are not as well protected as information held under similar restrictions by businesses. Governments can change and ignore the laws that apply to information without suffering adverse consequences. Businesses can not.


Comments? (Subject: GovPrivLaws)

[updated 10/1/00]

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