The Best of Creative Computing Volume 1 (published 1976)

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Putting Teeth Into Privacy Legislation (1974 Right to Privacy Act)

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Putting Teeth Into Privacy Legislation

by Susan Hastings

H. R. 1984 - that's the apt number a computer has
assigned to the new Koch-Goldwater that would
expand the 1974 Right to Privacy Act. The new bill is
designed to correct many of the ambiguities and weaknesses
of the first successful legislation for protecting the privacy
of individuals on whom personal information is held in
federal government data banks.

Public concern with the government's relentless appetite
for more and more information about the people it serves
has grown with the Watergate disclosures and the recent
revelations about CIA and FBI dossier-building. People who
formerly were only peripherally aware of the problem, are
now joining the crusade against privacy invasion partly
because they see the computer, and the data it is capable of
storing, as a terrible threat to their right to privacy. They
don't like the idea that somewhere, somehow, files are
being kept on them; that there are clerks who know about
them, and can reach into those files and do things against

The new law is not perfect, but as Willis H. Ware,
chairman of a presidential commission appointed to study
the implications of privacy legislation, admits, it's adequate
"as a first whack at the problem." Major criticism is
directed at what the law has omitted, and conversely, at the
prohibitive expense of implementing just what it does

Privacy legislation does not prohibit the government
from keeping data banks, but it does protect the individual
on whom the information has been kept from wanton
disclosure of that information. The present law covers most
personal information systems operated by federal agencies;
the new bill would extend legislation to cover state and
local governments as well as the private sector. Under it,
subjects of data to be released usually must be aware of the
nature, the purpose, and the recipient of the information to
be disclosed, and should, in most cases, be able to rule on


its accuracy and relevancy. Implementation of the law will
be costly: the Office of Management and Budget estimates
expenses of $200 to $300 million a year for the first four
or five years after a startup cost of $100 million. And that
is just for the law as it now stands. People seeking
continued privacy legislation want it to cover data in the
files of many agencies that are exempt in current and
pending legislation, i.e., law enforcement, intelligence and
certain personnel records. But these people do have hope
for continued legislation, and will continue their battle for
new laws, even if they do have to see them passed

The American Civil Liberties Union is one extragovernmental 
group that has worked long and hard for
privacy legislation, and it is generally pleased with
Congressional response. Ironically, Aryeh Neier, ACLU
executive director, gives praise for the victory to the
computer itself. Today's fear about computers and invasion
of privacy has had a very beneficial impact, he says, because
"it created an awareness of the possible danger" for

Neier believes that the computer, although it "may make
it a little bit easier to invade privacy", was never the real
villain in the personal information game. The technology
for managing data banks had achieved a significant enough
development before computers came along to create the
problem without computers. Before the computer came
along, information that was fed into the information files
was actually of a more gossipy nature than the harder kind
that the computer is fit to handle. But people were more
scared about the power of a machine than they ever were
about the real culprits - the people who collect the
information to use against other people.

Government will probably always insist on keeping
records about its citizens. Perhaps though, new privacy
legislation and the computer that inspired it, will limit the
information government can afford to keep and use. After
all, it's expensive to feed unnecessary information into data
files. It's also expensive to break the law.

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