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Home > Privacy and Government > How Governments Use Information

How Governments Use Information

Governments thrive on information about people. Personal information allows governments to serve their citizenry better, to collect taxes, and to enforce laws and regulations. But governments stand in a very different position to personal information than businesses or individuals. Governments have the power to take and use information without permission. And there is little recourse against governments when they use information in ways that are harmful or objectionable. The position of governments in relation to the privacy of citizens should be carefully examined.

In the modern welfare state, governments use copious amounts of information to serve their people. Any program designed to help citizens requires fairly large collections of information. A program to provide medical care, for example, requires the government to collect a beneficiary’s name, address, telephone number, sex, age, income level, medical condition, medical history, providers’ names, and much more. The Social Security number was created so citizens could receive government benefits. Its adoption as a standard personal identifier has added to the list of information that people must guard as private.

Governments also use personal information to collect taxes. This requires massive collections of information without regard to whether an individual views it as private: name, address, phone number, Social Security number, income, occupation, marital status, investment transactions, home ownership, medical expenses, purchases, foreign assets. The list is very, very long.

A third use government makes of personal information is to investigate crime and enforce laws and regulations. Governments’ ability to do these things correlates directly to the amount of information they can collect about where people go, what they do, what they say, to whom they say it, what they own, what they think, and so on. We rely on government to investigate wrongdoing by examining information that is often regarded as private in the hands of the innocent. It is a serious and legitimate concern of civil libertarians that government collects too much information about the innocent in order to reach the guilty.

The incentives that governments have all point toward greater collection and use of personal information about citizens. This predisposes them to violate privacy. A patchwork of privacy laws do purport to protect citizens, but they often prove insufficient. Governments remain the most voracious collectors, consumers, and sometime abusers of personal and private information.


Government Privacy Violators by James K. Glassman, Tech Central Station (July 24, 2000)

How Big Brother Began by Solveig Singleton, Cato Institute (November 25, 1997)

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[updated 04/17/02]

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