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Home > Privacy and Government > Privacy Law Governing the Government Sector > Important Directives, Guidelines, and Studies > The HEW Report

The HEW Report

In the early 1970s, a committee called "The Secretary's Advisory Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems" within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare did an important study of record keeping practices in the computer age. The intellectual content of its report, commonly known as the "HEW Report," formed much of the basis of the Privacy Act of 1974. The report dealt extensively with the use of the Social Security Number as the issues stood at that time.

The HEW report summarized personal privacy as follows:

    An individual's personal privacy is directly affected by the kind of disclosure and use made of identifiable information about him in a record. A record containing information about an individual in identifiable form must, therefore, be governed by procedures that afford the individual a right to participate in deciding what the content of the record will be, and what disclosure and use will be made of the identifiable information in it. Any recording, disclosure, and use of identifiable personal information not governed by such procedures must be proscribed as an unfair information practice unless such recording, disclosure or use is specifically authorized by law.
The "fair information practices" advocated by the HEW report were:
  • There must be no personal-data record-keeping systems whose very existence is secret.
  • There must be a way for an individual, to find out what information about him is in a record and how it is used.
  • There must be a way for an individual to prevent information about him obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for other purposes without his consent.
  • There must be a way for an individual to correct or amend a record of identifiable information about him.
  • Any organization creating, maintaining, using, or disseminating records of identifiable personal data must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use and must take reasonable precautions to prevent misuse of the data.
"Fair information practices" remain widely discussed today, though they are problematic in application and not widely adopted.

Because it treated the public and private sectors identically despite their vast differences in rights, powers, and incentives, it cannot be said that the HEW Report addressed all the complexities of the privacy issue. As an analysis of government information practices, however, it was an important project and document. It also tells us that computers and privacy are not a new concern to Americans.


Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens, Report of the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare [new Health and Human Services] (July, 1973)

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[updated 02/21/01]

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