Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Privacy Act of 1974

06/01/2002

The Privacy Act of 1974 was born out of the Watergate scandal in response to public outcry against the many invasions of privacy that occurred in that case. The concern was focused on the government's collection and disclosure of personal information. The Privacy Act places information disclosure limitations on the federal government, providing that certain records cannot be disclosed without the permission of the individual who is the subject of the record.

The act establishes certain responsibilities and conditions for information collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination. The information gathered must be relevant and necessary to the agency's mission. It should be collected directly from the individual to the greatest extent possible. The individual subjects of the data have to be informed of (1) the purpose of data collection, (2) whether participation in the collection of data is voluntary or mandatory, (3) the planned uses for the data, and (4) the consequences to an individual who does not provide the information.(7)

Third-party disclosure by a federal agency is also regulated by the Privacy Act. Data may be disclosed only when (1) the data subject has provided written consent authorizing the disclosure and (2) the disclosure in question is altogether exempted by the Act or it falls within an exception that allows for certain types of disclosures without consent.

The Fair Information Practices and the requirements of the Privacy Act of 1974 would seem to make research use impossible in the typical case where data are used by researchers in unanticipated ways after they have been collected and where contacting individuals at that point is nearly always prohibitively expensive. Research has, however, proceeded by using the "routine use" exemptions of the Privacy Act and similar legislation that serve as the legal basis for disclosing information to a state agency that operates a parallel benefits program.(8) This exemption requires that (1) the use is compatible with the purposes for which the information was collected, and (2) the agency places notices about its information disclosure plans in the Federal Register and provides a 30-day opportunity for interested persons to comment on any new or intended use of the agency's data. The act also provides that consent is not required when the recipient of data provides the agency with written assurance that the data will be used solely as a statistical record and will be transferred in a form that is not identified individually.

The Privacy Act establishes limitations on what can be done with personal information collected by federal agencies, but the act itself is not the primary source of protection at the agency level. Separate federal laws and regulations have been promulgated that govern federally funded programs, and the provisions of the Privacy Act frequently have been included in them, thus extending its protections down to the state and local governments and other nongovernmental entities that administer and deliver these federally funded services. Thus, the Privacy Act provides a good starting place for understanding the legal issues associated with data sharing, but a thorough understanding requires examining informational privacy, confidentiality, and consent provisions for each specific federal program and agency.

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