Federal Privacy Act

The Federal Privacy Act[i] governs the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personally identifiable information about individuals maintained in systems of records by federal agencies.  The Privacy Act requires that agencies give the public notice of their systems of records by publication in the Federal Register.  The Federal Privacy Act regulates personal information which the federal government can collect about private individuals.  Additionally, the Act explains how the personal information can be used.

Main purposes of the Privacy Act are:

  • to give individuals greater control over the gathering, dissemination, and inaccuracy of agency information about themselves;
  • to allow individuals on whom information is being compiled and retrieved the opportunity to review the information;
  • to request the agency to correct any inaccuracies; and
  • to forbid disclosure unless the disclosure is required by the Freedom of Information Act.

The Privacy Act does not apply to all government information or agencies.  Only Executive Branch agencies fall under the Privacy Act.  In addition, one can request information or records that can be retrieved by his/her name, Social Security number, or some other personal identifier[ii]

The Federal Privacy Act provides certain rights to U.S.citizen.  They are :

  • Right to see the information the government has about him/her, subject to the exemptions[iii];
  • Right to account for disclosure[iv];
  • Right to change or delete any information that is incorrect, irrelevant, untimely, or incomplete[v];
  • Right to sue the Government for violations of the Act[vi]; and
  • Right to prohibit unauthorized access to personal information[vii].

Moreover, the rights provided under the Privacy Act are subject to both general exemptions provided in the FOIA and specific exemption.  The government can withhold certain information as exempted under the Privacy Act.  Exemption includes information concerning national security and criminal investigations.  Additionally, the Privacy Act exemption protects records that might identify an agency’s source of confidential information.

The Privacy Act prohibits an agency from maintaining records describing how an individual exercises his/her rights guaranteed by the law.  However, an agency can maintain such record for the scope of an authorized law enforcement activity[viii].  “It is not a violation of the Privacy Act for a federal agency to record, for evaluative or disciplinary purposes, statements made by employees while at work.  The record about an employer’s determination whether an employee is performing his/ her job adequately constitutes an authorized law enforcement activity within the provisions of the Act”[ix].

Agencies are empowered to make rules governing procedures under the Privacy Act[x].  Agencies must file reports with Congress and the Office of Management and Budget.  Congress and the Office of Management and Budget evaluate the effect of the rules framed.  The Privacy Act requires every agency to maintain relevant individual information.  The Act empowers agencies to collect information from the subject involved.  An agency must print a Privacy Act Notice and publish in the Federal Register an annual notice.  An agency must maintain all records used in making determinations about individuals.  The records must be accurate, complete, timely, and relevant for agency purposes.  An agency can make rules regulating the conduct of agency record keepers.  Moreover, the Act empowers agency to make security measures.  The Privacy Act provides that federal, state, or local government agency cannot deny to any individual any right, benefit, or privilege provided by law, on the ground that individual has refused to disclose his/ her Social Security account number.

The Privacy Act also provides private rights of action.  An individual can sue a government agency which violates these rules and can obtain relief in the form of an injunction, damages and/or attorneys fees.

[i] 5 USCS § 552 a.

[ii] USCS § 552 a (a)(2).

[iii] 5 USCS § 552a(b).

[iv] 5 USCS § 552a(c ).

[v] 5 USCS § 552a(d).

[vi] 5 USCS § 552a (g),(i).

[vii] 5 USCS § 552a(a)(4)(b).

[viii] 5 USCS § 552 a (e) (7).

[ix] American Federation of Government Employees v. Schlesinger,443 F. Supp. 431 (D.D.C. 1978).

[x] 5 USCS § 552a (e)(1) to (12).


Inside Federal Privacy Act