Privacy Act of 1974

The Privacy Act of 1974, a United States federal law, establishes a Code of Fair Information Practice that governs the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personally identifiable information about individuals that is maintained in systems of records by federal agencies. A system of records is a group of records under the control of an agency from which information is retrieved by the name of the individual or by some identifier assigned to the individual. The Privacy Act requires that agencies give the public notice of their systems of records by publication in the Federal Register. The Privacy Act prohibits the disclosure of information from a system of records absent the written consent of the subject individual, unless the disclosure is pursuant to one of twelve statutory exceptions. The Act also provides individuals with a means by which to seek access to and amendment of their records, and sets forth various agency record-keeping requirements.

Provisions of the Privacy Act

Conditions of disclosure

The Privacy Act states in part:

No agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency, except pursuant to a written request by, or with the prior written consent of, the individual to whom the record pertains.

There are specific exceptions for the record allowing the use of personal records:

  • For statistical purposes by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • For routine uses within a U.S. government agency
  • For archival purposes “as a record which has sufficient historical or other value to warrant its continued preservation by the United States Government”
  • For law enforcement purposes
  • For congressional investigations
  • Other administrative purposes

The Privacy Act mandates that each United States Government agency have in place an administrative and physical security system to prevent the unauthorized release of personal records.

To protect the privacy and liberty rights of individuals, federal agencies must state “the authority (whether granted by statute, or by Executive order of the President) which authorizes the solicitation of the information and whether disclosure of such information is mandatory or voluntary” when requesting information. This notice is common on almost all federal government forms which seek to gather information from individuals, many of which seek personal and confidential details.


Department of Justice

Subsection requires that each agency have a Data Integrity Board. It is supposed to make an annual report to OMB, available to the public, that includes all complaints that the Act was violated, such as use of records for unauthorized reasons or the holding of First Amendment Records and report on —…”(v) any violations of matching agreements that have been alleged or identified and any corrective action taken”. Former Attorney General Dick Thornburg appointed a Data Integrity Board but since then USDOJ has not published any Privacy Act reports.

Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act

The Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act of 1988, P.L. 100–503, amended the Privacy Act of 1974 by adding certain protections for the subjects of Privacy Act records whose records are used in automated matching programs. These protections have been mandated to ensure:

  • procedural uniformity in carrying out matching programs;
  • due process for subjects in order to protect their rights, and
  • oversight of matching programs through the establishment of Data Integrity Boards at each agency engaging in matching to monitor the agency’s matching activity.

The Computer Matching Act is codified as part of the Privacy Act.

 Access to records

The Privacy Act also states:

Each agency that maintains a system of records shall—
  1. upon request by any individual … permit him … to review the record and have a copy made of all or any portion thereof in a form comprehensible to him …
  2. permit the individual to request amendment of a record pertaining to him .

Issues of scope

The Privacy Act does apply to the records of every “individual,”but the Privacy Act only applies to records held by an “agency”.

Therefore the records held by courts, executive components, or non-agency government entities are not subject to the provisions in the Privacy Act and there is no right to these records.



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