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Introduction to Privacy Act

The Privacy Act of 1974 is a Federal law that is set forth in Title 5, Section 552a, of the United States Code (5 U.S.C.552a), as amended. The purpose of the Privacy Act is to balance the Government’s need to maintain information about individuals with the rights of individuals to be protected against unwarranted invasions of their privacy resulting from the collection, maintenance, use, and disclosure of personal information. In general, the Privacy Act focuses on four basic policy objectives:

  • To restrict disclosure of personally identifiable records maintained by agencies;
  • To grant individuals increased rights of access to agency records maintained on them;
  • To grant individuals the right to seek amendment of agency records maintained on them upon showing that the records are not accurate, relevant, timely, or complete, and,
  • To establish a code of “fair information practices” which requires agencies to comply with statutory norms for collection, maintenance, and dissemination of records.

The Privacy Act applies only to U.S. citizens and aliens who are lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States. It applies only to personal information maintained by agencies in the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.

The Privacy Act also pertains only to information that is maintained in a “system of records,” which the Act defines as a group of agency-controlled records from which information is retrieved by a unique identifier, such as an individual’s name, date of birth, social security number, or employee identification number. The Privacy Act further defines a “record” as any individually identifiable set of information that an agency might maintain about a person. Such records may include a wide variety of personal information including, but not limited to, information about education, financial transactions, medical history, criminal history, or employment history. However, the Privacy Act explicitly states that agencies may not maintain information about how individuals exercise their First Amendment rights, unless maintenance of that information is specifically authorized by statute, by the individual about whom the record is maintained, or relates to a law enforcement activity.