How Much Privacy Should You Have? you have had similar thoughts about the Data-collection activities of local and state Governments, business corporations, Schools and universities, and other organizational record-keepers in American society. You are far from alone. In l970, A national Harris poll found that one out of three Americans was personally worried about invasions of his privacy. While eavesdropping on telephone conversations was mentioned. The most widely cited complaints involved personal data collection by organizations. These included “Computers that collect too much information." credit inquiries by business. and the way the federal government collects taxes and takes the census. Normally. what disturbs every third American gets some fairly serious attention from the nation's lawmakers. But the trouble with protection of privacy. from the surfacing of this issue in the early I960s until l974, was that American legislators treated it much like the weather everyone talked about the problem but no one was willing or able to do anything about it. Citizen's Rights-The Federal Privacy Act of 1974 Then came Watergate. Between 1972 and I974. Americans learned to their shock and dismay that White House agents had ordered the tapping of the Democratic Party's telephones, the burglary of a psychiatrist’s office to get confidential medical files on a Vietnam war Critic, and the assembling of income-tax data and sex-life information on members of the press and political critics of the Nixon Administration. By I974, national polls reported that one out of two Americans now felt that his personal privacy was threatened. ln this Watergate-dominated atmosphere. Congress finally did act. In a move that has so far received far too little attention in the popular media. Congress passed the Federal Privacy Act of I974. one of the potentially most important citizen's rights laws in the computer age. Since the new law governs the collection of personal data by virtually all federal agencies and gives individuals important new powers to protect themselves against abusive practices. it is crucial for the protection of privacy that the public learn just what the Privacy Act does for them. By the time that Congress decided that it had to pass some major privacy legislation in I974. at least covering the federal government's own files. three key issues of data privacy had come into focus: What personal information ought to be collected at all by a given federal agency or department, to carry out its lawful functions? lf personal information is properly collected, how can we be sure it is kept confidential within the collecting agency. for the purpose originally intended. and not shared improperly with other government officials or private organizations? Shouldn't individuals almost always have a legal right to inspect that record. if they wish, to check its accuracy, completeness and lawful use? As it faced these difficult questions of judgment. Congress was aware that far more was at stake than assuring shaming the constitutional rights of political radicals or Mafia leaders. Hearings chaired by Senator Sam Ervin, Jr., and other Congressional leaders had documented that “derogatory information files" were being amassed on [image] hundreds of thousands of Americans by federal investigative agencies. Even more fundamentally, every American's access to the benefits and opportunities controlled by organizational record-keepers could be imperiled by inaccurate, incomplete or improper data-collection practices. especially by the federal government. By I974, Congress had also learned through studies by the National Academy of Sciences and a Citizen's Panel report for the Department of Health. Education. and Welfare that the basic issues were not caused by computers, and no “pull-the-plug" decision could resolve the problem. Computerized files and databanks were increasingly the setting in which the social policy issues had to be faced. and computers tend to magnify. the injuries that can be done. But Congress realized that the basic issues concerned how Americans were to be judged for various rewards and opportunities in our society. and through what kinds of fair procedures. 82 So the Federal Privacy Act of 1974 took a major step forward. by requiring federal agencies to follow a code of fair information practices in handling citizen information. whether in computers or on cards, Stripped of technical language, some of the Act's main sections provide that: Individuals must be told. whenever they are asked to give personal information. what legal authority the agency has to ask for this. whether supplying it is voluntary or required. and how it will be used. Individuals can inspect their own records if they wish. obtain a copy of them. and have their accuracy verified and officially corrected if found to be inaccurate. Individuals can find out who else besides the agency that collected the information has had access to their records. Guidelines for Federal Agencies As its basic framework. the Act sets out standards and procedures for federal agencies to follow as “fair information practices," Federal agencies must collect only data “relevant and necessary" to their lawful function. They cannot collect information about how we exercise our First Amendment rights of speech, press, association and religion. unless such collection is expressly authorized by law. Agencies must take reasonable steps to see that our records are “accurate, relevant, timely and complete." At least once a year. each federal agency must publish a public notice about each system of personal records it maintains. This must state the system's name, location, categories of persons covered, users of the system, policies as to storage and retrieval. controls over access. and procedures for individuals to inspect and challenge their records if they wish. Most important of all. the Federal Privacy Act makes it a crime for federal officials knowingly to violate the Act's requirements. It also gives individuals the right to sue in federal court to enforce access, correction or compliance with the Act. with damages and even lawyers' fees provided in cases of willful violations. The Act contains a few controversial exceptions. for investigative activities of law enforcement agencies. the CIA. and certain kinds of personnel-checking inquiries. But the Act's coverage is still remarkably wide. probably reaching more than 95 percent of the record-keeping activities of the federal government. ln order to give federal agencies a chance to get their enormous file collections into good order and to install new procedures. the Privacy Act does not take effect until September of I975. That also gives us as citizens a chance to learn what the Act does and how we can use it.