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Overview of the Privacy Act of 1974

Policy Objectives

Broadly stated, 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 stemming from federal agencies’ collection, maintenance, use, and disclosure of personal information about them.  The historical context of the Act is important for understanding its remedial purposes.  In 1974, Congress was concerned with curbing the illegal surveillance and investigation of individuals by federal agencies that had been exposed during the Watergate scandal.  It was also concerned with potential abuses presented by the government’s increasing use of computers to store and retrieve personal data by means of a universal identifier – such as an individual’s social security number.  The Act focuses on four basic policy objectives:

  1. To restrict disclosure of personally identifiable records maintained by agencies.

  2. To grant individuals increased rights of access to agency records maintained on themselves.

  3. To grant individuals the right to seek amendment of agency records maintained on themselves upon a showing that the records are not accurate, relevant, timely, or complete.

  4. To establish a code of “fair information practices” that requires agencies to comply with statutory norms for collection, maintenance, and dissemination of records.

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Updated February 24, 2021