Because governments are the most voracious consumers (and often abusers) of personal
information, it is important to have meaningful protection for citizens. The
Privacy Act of 1974 (5 U.S.C. 552a) is intended to provide individuals with broad
protection from the unauthorized use of records that federal agencies maintain about
them. It requires agencies to account for disclosures of records that it maintains,
and to take steps to minimize and protect the accuracy of records. It also requires
agencies to reveal the purposes for which they are collecting information, and it gives
individuals a right to gain access to records about them. Individuals may sue in
federal District Court if their rights under the Privacy Act
are violated, and there are criminal penalties for knowing and willfull violation of
Unfortunately, the Privacy Act is an extremely long statute that is riddled with
exceptions and caveats. Privacy Act statements, which are required on the forms used
to collect information from citizens, are insufficient and they do not remind citizens
that uses of information can be changed merely on notice published in an obscure
publication called the Federal Register. A liquidated damages provision was
recently read out of the Privacy Act by the Supreme Court.
The laudable intentions of the Privacy Act have not limited government information
collections, and the potential for privacy invasions, in any significant sense.
with governments, citizens do not have the alternatives that they do when dealing with
businesses or others in the private sector. Citizens may not choose to deal with a different
government they way they can choose among businesses. They also do not
have a common law right to sue a government that invades their privacy. For these
reasons, statutory privacy protections from government like the Privacy Act should
be strong and clear.
The Privacy Act would benefit from a revision that strengthens and clarifies its terms
so that the public can be confident that information will not be abused by federal
agencies or bureaucrats.
Overview of the Privacy
Act of 1974, U.S. Department of Justice (May, 2000)