Personal Privacy in an Information Society. The Citizen as Beneficiary of Government Assistance

07/12/1997

Two factors led the Privacy Protection Study Commission to study the record-keeping practices of public assistance and social services1 agencies.2 First, the number of Americans who receive government assistance or service in some form is enormous. Second, the process of administering the welfare system3 depends on the collection and use of personal information. The collaboration between the Federal government and the various States in developing the present welfare system has provided a complex set of eligibility criteria and formulae for determining the level of benefits to which an individual is entitled. Applying them demands a great deal of personal information. No one could deny that the welfare system is "intrusive," if one test of intrusiveness is the volume, detail, and sensitivity of the information collected about clients4 of the system.

Perhaps because the intrusive nature of the system is so widely acknowledged, Congress has, since the 1930's, recognized the need to provide some protection from unfairness in the use of records about clients of federally assisted welfare programs. Federal law regarding record keeping does not, however, encompass all the basic issues of fairness identified by the Commission. In addition, although the largest federally assisted welfare programs are required by Federal law to maintain some standards of fairness, many are not required to take into account even minimal considerations of fairness in their record keeping. Moreover, programs funded only by a State or local government are often constrained by no laws or standards for protecting the personal privacy interests of clients.

Two main considerations guided the Commission in its task of analyzing current Federal policy with respect to the practices of agencies providing public assistance and social services. The first consideration was the principle that individuals compelled by necessity to seek assistance and services from programs funded by government agencies should not have to renounce all claim to personal privacy in exchange for the benefits they seek. In the Commission's view, welfare clients have as much right to respect and dignity as other groups and should be as carefully protected from unfairness stemming from record keeping as are consumers of insurance, medical care, and credit.

Second was the need to maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of a welfare system which divides responsibilities-for funding and for administration-among Federal, State, and local government agencies. Although its great spending power gives the Federal government a powerful regulatory tool, when the Federal government lacks sufficient knowledge of, or sensitivity to, local circumstances, some discretion should appropriately be left to the States and localities.

While this report was in preparation, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and other government agencies and private organizations were exploring various welfare reform alternatives. Although the shape reform will take is not yet clear, safeguards against unfairness to individuals will always be needed, and thus review of record-keeping policies and practices is timely. The Commission hopes this report will help policy makers both in modifying record-keeping practices under the present welfare system and in formulating policies to protect the privacy rights of clients under whatever system may emerge. In particular, in the event that the administration of certain welfare programs is assumed by the Federal government, this chapter may help concerned parties to determine whether special protections should be provided for records about welfare clients that supplement those provided in the Privacy Act of 1974.