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Home > Privacy and Government > Government Invasions of Privacy > IRS 'Browsing'

IRS 'Browsing'

In 1997, a practice at the Internal Revenue Service known as "browsing" came to the attention of Congress and the public. Thousands of IRS employees have access to the files of American taxpayers thanks to the nationwide IRS database at Martinsburg, West Virginia. Though there have always technically been rules against browsing those files, the IRS has done little to prevent employees from doing so.

In a 1997 case, the First Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction of an IRS employee who had reviewed numerous returns of people he knew or wanted to know about. It turned out that the laws he was charged with required him to disclose taxpayer information to others before he could be found guilty. Thus, until Congress closed this loophole later that year, IRS agents could legally sift through anyone's personal financial information.

Citizens have no option but to submit personal financial information to the government on tax returns. When information is collected by force of law, then made available to any bureaucrat with the interest to peruse it, this violates our reasonable privacy expectations.

This example illustrates how privacy law governing the public sector fails to protect citizens. It moves in fits and starts, responding after the fact to new threats to privacy created by agencies and bureaucrats.

This example also illustrates the weakness of government's incentives to protect privacy. Even if a private-sector employee could examine customer files, he or she would not, knowing that termination would be the immediate result. A General Accounting Office report found, however, that in fiscal 1994-95 IRS accused 1,515 employees of computer misuse. Only twenty-three were fired for snooping, while 349 were disciplined and 472 were "counseled."


Opinion in United States v. Czubinski, No. 96-1317 (1st Cir.)

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[updated 04/17/02]

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