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


The third Privacy Act principle holds that an individual should have the right to challenge the contents of a record on the grounds that it is not accurate, timely, complete, or relevant. The principle specifically recognizes that information can be a source of unfairness to an individual. In theory, the right to participate in the maintenance of a record allows for complaint, involvement, and representation in order to force a balancing of the individual's interests against the record keeper's. If this principle is enforced, the individual is able to keep some measure of control (although not absolute control) over the substance of what he himself reveals to an agency, as well as to check on what the agency collects about him from other sources.

The Act has made significant progress toward fulfillment of this principle through its requirement that agencies establish procedures whereby the individual may request correction or amendment of a record, appeal any denial of his request, and file a statement of disagreement if the denial and appeal result in a stand-off, either before or after judicial review. In allowing the individual to file a statement of disagreement, even after the agency's denial of his request is upheld by a court, the Act implicitly recognizes that the agency and the individual may have divergent interests in the content of a record, as well as the fact that there may be no clear-cut criteria for assessing accuracy, timeliness, completeness, or relevance.

Despite the Act's sophistication in this area, however, the correction and amendment rights have not been widely exercised. This doubtless reflects the small number of access requests under the Privacy Act; but it may also be due in part to the fact that so many of the agency records an individual might want to correct or amend are exempt from the individual access requirement and therefore not open for correction or amendment. Nevertheless, the right to correct or amend a record, once access has been obtained, is an area in which the Privacy Act represents a significant advance for the individual.