Personal Privacy in an Information Society. Method of Study and Analysis


There are dozens of federally assisted programs for providing help to the needy, and unnumbered assistance and services programs funded by State and local governments. Since in-depth study of all these programs was impossible, the Commission confined its detailed examination to the record-keeping policies applicable to agencies administering the four largest federally assisted programs in terms of dollars and clients. These programs are Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, Title XX Social Services, and Food Stamps. In addition, the Commission examined the Child Support Enforcement Program. This program seemed to merit the Commission's attention because it has been particularly controversial, some groups seeing it as entailing abrogation of absent parents' privacy interests. The Commission did not study in detail the public assistance and social services programs administered directly by the Federal government rather than by States and localities, and therefore makes no recommenda-tions regarding them. The Privacy Act of 1974 already covers such programs, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the aged, blind, and disabled and cash benefits for veterans with disabilities not related to military service.

The Commission's study of the four specified programs included a review of pertinent Federal statutes and regulations, meetings with Federal, State, and local officials and representatives of private organizations and public interest groups, and the services of an expert consultant with many years of experience in the welfare field. After completing the initial study, the Commission formulated a set of draft recommendations which were published in the Federal Register5and otherwise made available for public comment. Three days of public hearings on the recommendations were held in January, 1977, and, in addition, the Commission has received more than 90 written comments regarding them. Although the Commission could not make detailed studies of record keeping by the welfare agencies of all fifty States, the written comments and oral and written testimony offered at the hearings yielded rich and valuable information regarding current practice in these agencies.

The Commission's inability to make a detailed study of the record-keeping policies applicable to all of the various federally funded assistance and services programs reflects a central problem: present law provides no clear, consistent set of policies applicable to record keeping in all federally assisted welfare programs. Each of the various statutes establishing a program either prescribes its own policy or is silent on the subject. Anyone who tries to administer public assistance and social services programs established by different Federal statutes may well encounter inconsistent, and perhaps incompatible, statutes and regulations governing record keeping. It is doubtful that anyone has, or, without very substantial resources, could have, a clear picture of how the laws governing this multitude of programs interrelate. In short, the Commission found that the descriptive word for record-keeping policy in this area is "complex." Thus, a primary Commission goal was to find ways of simplifying the complexity.