The Privacy Act of 1974

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The Privacy Act of 1974

Postby Administrator » Fri Oct 03, 2014 12:54 pm

The Privacy Act of 1974

Our governmental agencies maintain volumes of records on their own activities and on the activities of our citizens. Increased computerization of these records permits them to be used and analyzed in new ways that could diminish individual privacy in the absence of data protection safeguards.

Congress passed the Privacy Act after the Watergate break-in, and against its backdrop of governmental misuse of personal information. The Privacy Act of 1974, Pub. L. No. 93-579, 88 Stat. 1896, 5 U.S.C. 552a (1994). In fact, the Privacy Act would not have been passed in 1974 had it not been for Watergate. Its enactment was seen as part of a wider effort to “open up the executive establishment and cleanse the government of the murky and conspiratorial influences of the Nixon White House.” James T. O'Reilly, Federal Information Disclosure 20.01, at 20-5 (2d ed. 1995)

The Act restricts the collection, use, and dissemination of personal information by federal agencies. The Privacy Act first limits federal collection of personal data to information that is "relevant and necessary" to accomplish a purpose of the agency. Federal agencies must also establish safeguards to ensure the security and confidentiality of records. Unless a proposed disclosure falls within enumerated exceptions, the Privacy Act prohibits disclosure of that information without the prior written consent of the data subject. The Privacy Act generally applies only to federal records that are retrieved by name or other personal identifier. It protects U.S. citizens and permanent residents, but does not apply to foreign visitors, undocumented aliens, corporations, or other organizations.

Under the Privacy Act, individuals have the right to access agency records containing information about themselves, and the right to request amendment of information that is inaccurate, irrelevant, untimely, or incomplete. The Act provides civil remedies including injunctive relief for most violations, and criminal penalties for knowing and willful violations of the Act.

The Act permits agencies to disclose records without consent when the disclosure is "compatible" with the purpose for which the information was collected. Federal agencies have been repeatedly criticized for over-broad application of this "routine use" exception. Critics contend that agencies have ignored the requirements of a close nexus between the purpose of information collection and its proposed routine use. Court attempts to close this loophole have had mixed results.
David A. Szwak
Bodenheimer, Jones & Szwak, LLC
416 Travis Street, Suite 1404, Mid South Tower
Shreveport, Louisiana 71101
318-424-1400 / Fax 221-6555
President, Bossier Little League
Chairman, Consumer Protection Section, Louisiana State Bar Association

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