Overview of the Privacy Act of 1974

Introduction

The Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a (2006), which has been in effect since September 27, 1975, can generally be characterized as an omnibus “code of fair information practices” that attempts to regulate the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personal information by federal executive branch agencies. However, the Act’s imprecise language, limited legislative history, and somewhat outdated regulatory guidelines have rendered it a difficult statute to decipher and apply. Moreover, even after more than thirty-five years of administrative and judicial analysis, numerous Privacy Act issues remain unresolved or unexplored. Adding to these interpretational difficulties is the fact that many earlier Privacy Act cases are unpublished district court decisions. A particular effort is made in this “Overview” to clarify the existing state of Privacy Act law while at the same time highlighting those controversial, unsettled areas where further litigation and case law development can be expected.

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