The Privacy Act of 1974: An Assessment. APPENDIX 4 TO The Report of The Privacy Protection Study Commission.. The Disclosure Limitation Principle


The sixth Privacy Act principle asserts that there must be limits on the external disclosures of information an agency may make. That is, once an agency has legitimately obtained information, it still may not disclose it externally without restriction.

The Privacy Act authorizes ten categories of external disclosures that may be made without the consent of the individual. The most important one is found in Subsection 3(b)(3) which authorizes any disclosure that has been

established as a "routine use"; that is, any disclosure for a "purpose which is compatible with the purpose for which [the information] was collected." [5U.S.C. 552a(b)(3), 5 U.S.C. 552a(a)(7)J]The key word is "compatible," which some agencies have interpreted quite broadly. As but one example, the United States Marshals Service published a routine-use notice on September 16, 1976, which read in part:

A record may be disseminated to a Federal agency, in response to its request, in connection with . . . the issuance of a license, grant, or other benefit by the requesting agency, to the extent that the information relates to the requesting agency's decision on the matter. 19 [emphasis added]

Another problem with the routine-use provision is its relation to Subsection 3(b)(7), which authorizes disclosures of individually identifiable information to agencies for law enforcement purposes if the head of the agency requests the information in writing and specifies the legitimate law enforcement activity for which the information is desired. While treating the routine-use provision narrowly for some purposes, most agencies have employed it in combination with other laws to facilitate the flow of information to and between law enforcement and investigative units.

The combination of the Privacy Act's routine-use provision and Section 534 of Title 28, for example, permits agencies to circumvent the requirements of Subsection 3(b)(7). Under Section 534 of Title 28, the Department of Justice is required to maintain a central law enforcement information bank and to provide a clearinghouse for such information, particularly for agencies of the Federal government. Agencies have understood this provision to be a congressional endorsement of the routine exchange of law enforcement information, at least under the auspices of the Attorney General.

Currently, agencies of the Federal government seem to be employing the routine-use provision in order to permit the free flow of law enforcement and investigative information without having to comply with the standards of Subsection 3(b)(7). Agency system notices frequently indicate that information will be supplied to appropriate Federal, State, local, and, sometimes, foreign law enforcement agencies of government. In short, the Privacy Act does not place an effective burden on, or barriers to, the free flow of information within the law enforcement and investigative community.

Concurrent with formal endorsement of relatively unrestricted information flow to and between investigative agencies, the agents of investigative units have continued to employ the informal information network that exists within the law enforcement community. An agent of one unit may call his counterpart in a second agency to see if it might have any information on the subject of an investigation or any leads to people who might be appropriate to investigate. As the system currently operates, there would be some impediments to such disclosure-though not insurmountable ones where the units of government involved only investigative agencies and the information exchanged came exclusively from their files. Today, however, the unfettered ability to exchange information between law enforcement and investigative units amounts to access by such units to virtually any governmental records without the need to comply with the strictures in Subsection 3(b)(7).

Almost all agencies have law enforcement units of one sort or another through which information desired by other units in other agencies may be channeled. Indeed, the law enforcement unit of an agency might seek information on an individual from records maintained by other components of an agency and transmit it to a second agency which could subsequently maintain it in a form (e.g., retrievable by docket number) which leaves it free of Privacy Act restrictions. Law enforcement units and investigation agencies can, and often do, operate in this fashion and thus function as a conduit for the exchange of information with other law enforcement units. The problem is not so much that law enforcement units disclose information about individuals to illegitimate recipients, but rather that the determination of legitimacy is more often than not highly informal, with the decision to disclose being made by anyone from the field agent level to the head of an agency. Such informality presents substantial potential for improper disclosure. This is a problem the Commission has not dealt with extensively, though a structure for effective examination of it is suggested later in this chapter.

Although the effect of the routine-use provision has been limited, due mainly to the fact that it has been interpreted as applying only to external transfers of information, its safety-valve aspects should be preserved. The disclosure provisions of the Privacy Act must allow for a certain amount of agency discretion, since, in an omnibus statute, it is impossible to enumerate all of the necessary conditions of disclosure. Nonetheless, the Commission believes that the compatible purpose test of the routine-use provision should be augmented by a test for consistency, with the conditions or reasonable expectations of use and disclosure under which the information was provided, collected, or obtained. The individual's point of view must be represented in the agency's decision to use or disclose information, and today the compatible-purpose test only takes account of the agency's point of view.

The routine-use definition should also apply to internal, as well as external, agency uses and disclosures of information. This is important, since the majority of uses of information are made by the agency that originally collects it.

Congress may, of course, elect, as it has done in the Tax Reform Act of 1976, to authorize particular uses or disclosures of information that are either incompatible with the purpose for which the information was collected, or inconsistent with the individual's reasonable expectations of use and disclosure. Such additional uses and disclosures of information should be treated as routine uses, provided that the statute authorizing them establishes specific criteria for use or disclosure of specific types of information. Ideally, the Congress should review all the statutes that authorize such incompatible uses and disclosures and determine which ones it wishes to retain. The point, however, is that the Commission, as in other areas, believes that blanket disclosure authorizations or limitations should be actively discouraged.

One might think of incompatible uses and disclosures as "collateral uses." The question of whether a particular use or disclosure qualifies as a "collateral use" would then arise only after it has been established that the proposed use or disclosure was not a "routine use." The "collateral use" concept would also give the Congress a means of relating subsequently enacted disclosure statutes to the Privacy Act so that there will be no question about whether such disclosures are subject to the Act's requirements. As indicated earlier, and as discussed more thoroughly in Chapter 14 of the Commission's final report, the Tax Reform Act of 1976 is a good example of how this would work.

Besides resolving the routine-use issue, there is also a need to take explicit account in the Act of agency disclosures concerning constituents of Members of Congress. In the early days of the Act's implementation, Congress had trouble obtaining information for its own use. Congressional caseworkers found that they were unable to get individually identifiable information from agencies when they called them on behalf of constituents. Agencies refused to give out information to Members of Congress unless they received prior consent from the individual, since Subsection 3(b)(9) only authorizes disclosures to congressional committees or to the House or Senate as a whole. Members of Congress felt this undermined their role as representatives of their constituents, and it was, in fact, an oversight in the drafting of the current law.

To solve this problem, the Office of Management and Budget suggested to agencies that they establish disclosures to congressional offices as a routine use,20 and this is now a government-wide practice. The Commission believes this practice should be allowed to continue but that a specific provision should be included in the Act to permit it, since the current solution puts a strain on the interpretation of the compatiblepurpose test. Disclosure of a record should be allowed to a Member of Congress, but only in response to an inquiry from the Member made at the request of the individual involved, provided the individual is a constituent of the Member. Such a request could also be made by a relative or legal representative of the individual, if the individual is incapacitated or otherwise clearly unable to request the Member's assistance himself, and the requestor or the individual is a constituent of the Member.

Finally, some observers are of the view that, because the Privacy Act limits disclosures to the public, and the Freedom of Information Act directs disclosure to the public, there is an unresolvable conflict between the two laws. This view, however, is overly simplistic and, in the final analysis, an erroneous formulation of the relationship between the two statutes. The Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act mesh well. There are no statutory conflicts. Recent court decisions have also better defined the balances that must be struck between the competing interests. Nonetheless, there do appear to be some practical problems in the implementation of these two laws.

The "conditions of disclosure" section of the Privacy Act that establishes the ten categories of permissible external disclosures allows an agency to disclose a record about an individual to a member of the public who requests it, if the disclosure would be required under the Freedom of Information Act.21 On the other hand, Subsection (b)(6) of the Freedom of Information Act allows an agency to refuse to disclose a record to a member of the public (i.e., anyone other than the individual to whom the record pertains) if it is a medical, personnel, or similar record, the disclosure of which would constitute a "clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. "22

To understand the meshing of these requirements, it is useful to consider first the situation prior to the passage of the Privacy Act. The exemptions on access to information in the Freedom of Information Act are discretionary, not mandatory. Thus, under the FOIA (prior to the passage of the Privacy Act), an agency could withhold information, the disclosure of which would, in the agency's opinion, constitute a "clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," but the agency was not required to do so. Today, after passage of the Privacy Act, an agency is still required, by the Freedom of Information Act, to disclose information that would not constitute a "clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," but now an agency no longer has the discretion to disclose information it believes would constitute such a clearly unwarranted invasion.

A major problem in this area, however, is that agency operating personnel responsible for the day-to-day implementation of the two Acts have not been clearly enough apprised of how the laws mesh, of the applicable interpretations and court decisions, and of an agency's corresponding responsibilities under them. As a result, confusion, widely differing implementation, and occasional frustration of the intent of both laws have resulted. While determining what constitutes a "clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" will always require a certain amount of interpretation, more can and should be done to assist and guide those who have to make such determinations in the course of their daily work. Indeed, one of the primary functions of the entity recommended by the Commission in Chapter 1 of its final report would be to assist agencies in developing policy to aid agency employees in making such determinations.