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The Privacy Act: Emerging Issues and Related Legislation

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Publication Date: February 2002

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL30824

Topic: Human rights (Economic, social, and cultural rights)


The Privacy Act of 1974 represents an attempt by Congress to legislate several aspects of personal privacy protection as it relates to federal agency operations and practices. First, it sustains some traditional major privacy principles. Second, it provides an individual who is a citizen of the United States, or an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence, with access and emendation arrangements for records maintained on him or her by most, but not all, federal agencies. Third, the statute embodies a number of principles of fair information practice: it sets certain conditions concerning the disclosure of personally identifiable information; prescribes requirements for the accounting of certain disclosures of such information; requires agencies to collect information, to the greatest extent practicable, directly from the subject individual when the information may result in adverse determinations about an individual's rights, benefits, and privileges under federal programs; requires agencies to specify their authority and purposes for collecting personally identifiable information from an individual; requires agencies to maintain all records which are used by the agency in making any determination about any individual with such accuracy, relevance, timeliness, and completeness as is reasonably necessary to assure fairness to the individual in the determination; and provides civil and criminal enforcement arrangements.

Since its enactment, the Privacy Act has been amended on six occasions; actions in 1988 and 1990 establishing new procedures and data protection boards for computer matching are generally seen as being the most significant. Of late, new issues have arisen concerning these matters and some long-prevailing concerns. This report reviews the background and development of the statute, its current provisions, and emerging issues pertaining to it. As legislative and other relevant developments occur, this report will be updated.