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Home > Privacy and Government > Privacy Law Governing the Public Sector > The Privacy Act

The Privacy Act of 1974

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 the Act.

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.

When dealing 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)

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[updated 02/27/04]

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