Your Right to Privacy: A Basic Guide to Legal Rights in an Information Society

By Evan Hendricks; Trudy Hayden et al. | Go to book overview

I
Government Information Practices and the Privacy Act

Are there any limitations on the government's collection of data and information practices?

In theory, the Privacy Act of 1974,1 enacted as part of the Watergate-era reforms, regulates virtually all government handling of personal data. In practice the Privacy Act is a weak and poorly enforced statute. Consequently, there are only minimal restrictions on federal agencies' collection, use, and disclosure of personal data.


What is the Privacy Act supposed to do?

The law was intended to set up a code of fair information practices between Americans and their government. It obligates agencies "to the greatest extent practical," to collect only "necessary" information directly from the individual. It also calls on agencies to inform people of the agency's authority to collect the data, of how it will be used, and of the consequences to the individual, if any, of not providing the data.

The law attempts to ensure that individuals are not haunted by wrong or misleading agency records by requiring that the government maintain all files with "such accuracy, relevance, timeliness and completeness as is reasonably necessary to assure fairness to the person." To preclude harassment of the government's political enemies, agencies are barred from maintaining records on how individuals exercised their First Amendment rights, except when authorized by statute or the individual or when pertinent to an authorized law enforcement activity.

Individuals have a right to see and copy their own records and to correct inaccurate information. However, intelligence and law enforcement agencies can exclude entire systems of records from individual access, though some of these records can be reached under the Freedom of Information Act.

To allay fears that giving information to one agency would be like giving it to the entire government, the act prohibits

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