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


The Privacy Act incorporates the principle that there are proper approaches to the management of information and that agencies should take affirmative steps to assure that their information management practices conform to a reasonable set of norms. Subsection 3(e)(5) of the Privacy Act requires an agency to:

maintain all records which are used . . . in making any determination about an individual with such accuracy, relevance, timeliness, and completeness as is reasonably necessary to assure fairness to the individual in the determination; [5 U.S.C. 552a(e)(5)]

Further, Subsection 3(e)(10) requires an agency to:

establish appropriate administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to insure the security and confidentiality of records and to protect against any anticipated threats or hazards to their security or integrity which could result in substantial harm, embarassment, inconvenience or unfairness to any individual on whom information is maintained; [5 U.S.C 552a(e)(10)]

In theory, these requirements, in combination with the requirements implementing the Individual Participation and Accountability Principles, keep the individual from having to bear the full burden of monitoring the content of records an agency maintains about him, and they also grant him recourse when he can prove damages as a consequence of willful behavior in violation of the Act's requirements.

The Act's several information management provisions have had a positive effect on agency conduct by focusing an agency's attention on its policies and practices relating to the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of records about individuals. In addition, the Act's requirement that information must be relevant and necessary to accomplish a mandatory agency purpose seems to have reduced slightly the amount of information agencies maintain.23 Likewise, the "Privacy Act Statement" requirement24 and the annual notice requirement25 have somewhat limited the number of systems of records. But the requirement that information be kept accurate, timely, complete, and relevant26 appears to have had little effect on reducing or altering the types of information maintained.

Most agencies, to the extent they have a position, stand by their prior record maintenance practices. They contend that they have always attempted to achieve accuracy, and that the terms "timely, complete, and relevant" are meaningful only in the context of a specific record or recordkeeping situation-which is true. Nonetheless, interviews with operating personnel suggest that, although some accuracy standards have been tightened and retention periods for documents have been re-examined, agencies continue to maintain a substantial amount of information that is not as accurate, timely, complete, and relevant as it should be. The fact is that there are few if any formal mechanisms to review existing records and there is seldom, if ever, enough time to do so.

Because no specific, consistently applied criteria have been established for determining when an agency is in compliance with the Act's information management principles, they are not being adequately implemented. Within agencies, there has often been little or no compliance monitoring, as well as no office to which agency operating personnel can turn for guidance. Although efforts to train agency personnel are being made, awareness of the Act's requirements is much weaker than it should be-in all areas, not just information management.

Generally speaking, each agency or major agency component has a nucleus of employees who are well versed in matters relating to the Privacy Act, but many middle-level and lower-level operating personnel still do not know enough about the Act to allow them to carry out their responsibilities under it. For example, the Privacy Act is too often cited as the reason for withholding information from the public, when, in fact, such withholding is improper. Yet, without training, it appears that the one thing an agency employee is likely to know about the Act is that it contains criminal penalties for unauthorized disclosures, and thus that he should behave warily, particularly in responding to third-party Freedom of Information Act requests of the sort discussed in the preceding section on the Disclosure Limitation Principle.

The Commission has found that those agencies that have established formal, structured approaches and mechanisms to implement the Privacy Act are the most successful in their implementation of the Act. They have provided the best training for their personnel, have issued detailed, consistent internal guidelines, and have devised procedures for auditing their own compliance with the Act. In addition, agencies with previous experience with issues relating to information policy have generally adapted more readily to the requirements of the Act than have agencies for which information policy issues can be considered a relatively new experience.

In order to provide for more effective implementation of the Act, the Commission believes that the head of each agency should designate one official with authority to oversee implementation of the Act. The official's responsibili ties would include issuing instructions, guidelines, and standards, and making such determinations, as are necessary for the implementation of the Act. He would also be responsible for taking reasonable affirmative steps to assure that all agency employees and officials responsible for the collection, maintenance, use and dissemination of individually identifiable records are aware of the requirements of the Act.

The Commission believes that this is the minimum step necessary to ensure effective implementation of the Privacy Act. It parallels, and enhances, the approach taken by the agencies which are currently most successful in their implementation of the Act. Someone other than the individual record subject must be in a position to hold agency record keepers accountable; the Act's individual enforcement model is simply ineffective on a broad scale. Moreover, someone must have the authority to make decisions under the Act (e.g., to interpret the "reasonableness" and "compatible-purpose" tests); someone must be in a position, for example, to review a particular record-keeping practice or computer system design and assert, with authority, that it is reasonable. Obviously, such an approach addresses more than information management, and it can reasonably be expected that the designated agency official's activities would span the gamut of issues relating to the Act's implementation.

The Commission looks with favor on the Act's basic assumption that each agency is in the best position to judge what is best, reasonable, or appropriate for it. As indicated in the implementation in Chapter 1, it favors abandonment of the individual agency autonomy model of the Privacy Act only in instances where a clear societal interest is at stake or where it is necessary to establish an independent check on the agency.

Strengthening the individual agency enforcement mechanisms in the Privacy Act by the appointment of a Privacy Act officer in each agency is not intended to relieve the agency's operating personnel of their responsibilities under the Act. Rather, it is intended to make their jobs easier by providing a mechanism for guidance, instruction, and interpretation. A "reasonableness" test in the law is important for a court, but it does little to provide insight and guidance for those charged with the day-to-day implementation of the law.

By the same token, creation within an agency of an enforcement mechanism will serve to hold agency employees accountable in a way that no external entity or individual record subject can. This is as it should be, for ultimately the record-keeping agency must bear the burden for assuring that its record-keeping practices are fair.

While the Commission found that the Act's requirements regarding the necessity, accuracy, timeliness, completeness, and relevance of information in records [5 U.S.C. 552a(e)(1); 5 U.S.C 552a(e)(5)J appear to have had little effect on agency practices, it suggests no specific changes in those requirements. Rather, it believes that by altering the implementation strategy and incentives for compliance along the lines it suggests, the goals of these requirements will be achieved.

The Commission has also found that the Act's requirements for propagation of corrections does not adequately assure that decisions are made on the basis of accurate, timely, complete and relevant information. Under the Act, for example, corrections do not have to be sent to prior internal agency recipients or to the sources of erroneous information. In addition, corrections of erroneous information initiated by the agency rather than by the individual, no matter how important, do not have to be propagated at all. As in other areas it has examined, the Commission believes that corrections made by the record-keeping agency, as well as those made by the individual, should be propagated; and that, with some exceptions, corrections should be sent automatically to sources and prior internal and external recipients who provided or received the erroneous information, within a reasonable period of time prior to the making of the correction, as well as to any person (organization or individual) the individual specifically designates.

The Commission believes that corrections of erroneous information by the agency, in accordance with the Act's requirements to "maintain all records which are used by the agency in making any determination about any individual with such accuracy, timeliness, completeness, and relevance as is reasonably necessary to assure fairness . . ." [5 USC 552a(e)(5)] should be automatically propagated if two conditions exist: first, if the correction could reasonably be expected to affect a determination about the individual by the source or a prior recipient of the erroneous information that provided or received the information, within a reasonable period of time prior to the making of the correction; and second, if the source or prior recipient could not reasonably be expected to otherwise become aware of the error. However, propagation should not be required to prior recipients who received the erroneous information under the Freedom of Information Act or to any source who, acting on his own behalf, rather than in an official capacity, provided the erroneous information to the agency.

This approach provides for propagation of corrections in cases in which they would make an important difference to the individual, while limiting to the greatest extent possible the burden on the agency. Relating the propagation requirement to the Act's fairness-in-decision-making provision is important because doing so excludes certain corrections, such as those made to keep an historical record accurate.

The Commission believes it appropriate to place the basic responsibility for propagating corrections on the agency because there is no other realistic way for the individual to protect himself against the spread of erroneous information about him through the Federal government. Information can flow so freely within and between agencies, and decision points are so diffuse or difficult to isolate, that linking a propagation of correction requirement to an adverse determination, or to an initiative by the individual, destroys its efficacy.

By including the requirement that corrected information be sent to internal agency recipients and to sources, the Commission is also responding to evidence that suggests that more harm or unfairness can result to an individual from inaccurate internal agency uses and disclosure than from external uses and disclosures, since the former are more frequent and less apt to be independently verified. The requirement that an agency notify any person specifically named by the individual to whom the information pertains, of any corrections made by either the individual or the agency, is included to allow for propagations that the individual determines are important to him.

The Privacy Act requirement to maintain an accounting of disclosures of information about an individual is widely regarded as the statute's single most burdensome provision. It also appears to be one which has engendered little interest on the part of the general public. There are three objectives which can be potentially served by this requirement: (1) providing the record subject with a listing of the uses and disclosures of a record about him; (2) facilitating the propagation of corrections; and (3) internal agency auditing and compliance monitoring. Currently, the emphasis is on the first objective. Consequently, the Act, with two exceptions, requires an accounting of disclosures to every recipient of information from a system of records, including the individual himself, and the accounting must include the date, nature, and purpose of the disclosure, as well as information identifying the recipient. This required accounting is frequently burdensome, as well as occasionally unnecessary, and has led a number of Federal agencies to construe it as inapplicable in cases in which the individual is the recipient of the information. Moreover, an accounting does not have to be kept of internal agency uses and disclosures, and these are frequently of the most interest to the individual and the most important insofar as the propagation of corrections is concerned.

The Commission believes that the primary emphasis of the accounting of disclosure requirement should be on its utility in propagating corrections and that a "reasonableness" test should be established for determining the period of time for which an accounting must be kept, as well as for the amount of detail about each disclosure that must be kept. In addition, the Commission believes that when an individual so requests, an agency should make available to him its accounting of disclosures about him to (a) all prior recipients to whom it could reasonably be expected to propagate corrections, and (b) other recipients of which it could reasonably be expected to be aware. This would allow an individual to see the information an agency must maintain on its disclosures about him for the purpose of propagating corrections automatically, but would not require a log in any greater detail than that. This requirement, coupled with the suggested propagation of corrections requirement, would, however, mean that an individual would be able to obtain an accounting of disclosures to internal agency recipients of information, as well as to external ones, since under the new approach all prior internal recipients will now receive corrections when they are propagated.

An agency should be left free to decide how long to keep an accounting of disclosures based on its determination of how long it needs to keep the information for propagating corrections, as well as the amount of detail that needs to be kept about each disclosure. In all accountings disclosed to the individual, however, an agency should take reasonable affirmative steps to inform the individual, in a form comprehensible to him, of the date, nature, and purpose of each disclosure and the name and address of the person or agency to whom the disclosure was made.

One principal difference between this approach and the Act's accounting requirement is that an accounting would not need to be kept for five years, or the life of the record, whichever is longer.27 The Commission would also preserve the Act's use of the word "accounting" as opposed to "record," in order to allow for any scheme that enables the agency to reconstruct a list of past disclosures; that is, an explicit record or log entry need not be made for each disclosure. This is especially important in the case of frequent bulk transfers of data (when even the nature and purpose may only be generally known.)

The Privacy Act requirement that agencies establish safeguards to assure the security of individually identifiable records28 has run the gamut from business-as-usual to extreme measures aimed at forestalling any conceivable risk, no matter how small its chance of occurring. On balance, however, the "safeguarding of information" requirement has resulted in minor modifications, and some strengthening, of agency data-security standards.

A recently publicized example of a government information system with inadequate security involved the computer and telecommunications system, SSADARS, which connects private insurance companies acting as Medicare intermediaries for the government with the Social Security Administration (SSA) data file. The Social Security Administration reported at the Commission hearings on Medical Records in July 1976 that its longstanding policy of protecting the confidentiality of individually identifiable information in its files had been adequately carried out in its administrative and technical safeguards. On October 23, 1976, however, SSA announced that it had discovered that it was mistaken in its belief that there was "no way the Medicare intermediaries and carriers can use their telecommunications system to gain access to the files used to administer"29 other SSA programs. SSA staff found that the SSADARS terminals installed in the offices of two intermediaries could have been altered relatively easily, thereby permitting access to files other than the Medicare eligibility files the intermediaries needed to see. Although no actual access to other SSA program information is believed to have occurred, the technical safeguards to assure the confidentiality of information in the SSADARS system were not as effective as SSA had thought.

In spite of the Privacy Act, and assurance by the Social Security Administration that insurance company employees are subject to criminal sanctions as if they were Federal employees, SSA's Data Acquisition and Response System (SSADARS) has created a great deal of concern among the public and press. Inasmuch as the SSADARS system is a forerunner of the type of computer and telecommunications system which would be necessary for the administration of a broad-based Federal health-insurance program, it is imperative that Federal agencies take immediate affirmative measures to prevent information in such a system from becoming a source of unfairness to the individuals to whom it pertains. Therefore, the Commission recommends:

Recommendation (1):

That a Federal agency administering a health-insurance program which employs the services of a private health-insurance intermediary provide to the intermediary only that information necessary for the intermediary to carry out its responsibilities under the program.

Compliance with this recommendation would require that Federal agencies administering health-insurance plans develop administrative, physical, and technical safeguards as required by Section 3(e)(10) of the Privacy Act to assure the integrity of, and to prevent unauthorized access to, federally maintained data bases.

To correct the drafting deficiencies in the current safeguard requirement, as well as to make the obligation imposed by the requirement more realistic, the Commission believes that an agency should be required to establish reasonable administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to assure the integrity, confidentiality, and security of its individually identifiable records so as to minimize the risk of substantial harm, embarrassment, inconvenience, or unfairness to the individual to whom the information pertains. Such a change would be consistent with the Act's legislative history and should protect against the overreaction occasioned in some agencies by the current language of the Act which requires agencies to establish appropriate safeguards against any anticipated threats or hazards.

There is another related issue which also must be addressed. The Commission was specifically required by Subsection 5(c)(2)(B)(iv) of Public Law 93-579, to examine the issue of:

whether and how the standards for security and confidentiality of records under section 3(e)(10) of [the Privacy Act] should be applied when a record is disclosed to a person other than an agency.

The use of the word "standards" in this directive raises the question of the type of standards contemplated by the drafters. Within the Federal sector, the term standards has a precise meaning, and there are well defmed procedures for establishing Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS). A standard may be considered as synonymous with a "requirement," and, once established, is binding on Federal agencies. On the other hand, the term "guideline" may be equated with a "suggestion," and is not binding on Federal agencies. It seems clear from a reading of the Act and the legislative history, however, that the drafters did not intend the term standards, as used in Subsection 5(c)(2)(B)(iv), to be interpreted precisely, but rather to be interpreted more broadly as meaning "general criteria" for the establishment of security and confidentiality safeguards. Regardless of the meaning intended, however, the conclusion of the Commission remains the same.

The Commission's inquiry has shown that there are currently no standards, in the strict sense of the word, for security and confidentiality at the Federal level. Guidelines have been issued by the National Bureau of Standards, but their specificity and hence their utility is uneven. FIPS Publication No. 31,30 which establishes guidelines for automatic data processing physical security and risk management, is much more detailed and specific than FIPS Publication No. 41,31 which is intended to establish computer. security guidelines for implementing the Privacy Act of 1974. As already noted, the Commission's assessment of the Federal experience indicates that agency practice in response to the safeguard requirement in Subsection 3(e)(10) is extremely varied, ranging from no response whatsoever to what could be termed technological overkill. At the Federal level, in other words, there are, at best, limited standards, guidelines, or general criteria for safeguards which are susceptible to extension to any non-Federal agency recipient of information subject to the Privacy Act. Thus, in response to the mandate given it in Subsection 5(c)(2)(B)(iv), the Commission recommends:

Recommendation (2):

That there should be a continued examination of the standards, guidelines, and general criteria for safeguards within the Federal government, but there should not be a general extension of any Federal standards, guidelines, or general criteria for safeguards for security and confidentiality of records when a record is disclosed to a person other than an agency, except as specifically provided in other recommendations of the Commission.