THE PRIVACY ACT OF 1974
The Privacy Act of 1974 seeks to protect individuals from unjustified invasions of their privacy by restricting the disclosure of personal information that is collected and maintained by federal agencies.
Particularly, the Act seeks to protect information relating to a person’s:
* financial transactions
* medical history
* criminal history
* employment history
To qualify as a protectible record, the information must include a name or other identifying information.
Generally under the Act, federal agencies are required by the Act to only maintain that personal information that is relevant and necessary to accomplish a governmental purpose. Agencies are also directed, where practicable, to collect required personal information directly from the individual.
The protections of the Privacy Act are balanced by the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was designed to provide the public with access to important governmental records. Generally, however, the rights of the two Acts do not conflict. The FOIA specifically excludes from disclosure personnel and medical files that would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. It also excludes from disclosure records compiled for law enforcement purposes that could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. To determine whether disclosure constitutes a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, courts balance the harm to the individual whose privacy interest is breached against the public interest served by disclosure.
Courts have often applied the Privacy Act to requests for employment records. Following are several examples of court holdings limiting disclosure of employment records based upon the Act:
* One court ruled that a federal agency would have violated the Privacy Act by providing names and addresses of employees to labor union.
* Another court held that a federal agency would have violated the Privacy Act by providing labor union list of all employees with high performance ratings.
The Privacy Act grants individuals a limited right to access and inspect all personal information maintained by federal agencies about them. After such an inspection, individuals may request corrections of any information that is determined to be untimely, inaccurate, irrelevant, or incomplete.
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