The purpose of the Privacy Act is to ensure that an individual’s private records are not used by the federal government to collect information for which it has no legal use for.  In other words, a federal agency such as the F.B.I. is not privileged to know every aspect of an individual citizen’s life, but rather only is entitled to information that the F.B.I. needs to carry out its proper and legal function.

What Kind of Records Are Protected under this Act?

A record, as defined under this act means any information collected by a government agency that can include education, medical history, financial transactions, previous employment or criminal acts, or any information that contains identifying numbers, symbols, or any other item that can be used identify the individual.

When Can a Government Agency Use an Individual`s Record under this Act?

Generally, the information in an individual’s private records cannot be disclosed to a federal agency unless the individual has given written consent to enable the agency to see that information.  There are some exceptions to this rule: 

  • Essential to the function of an agency: For example, the Social Security Administration’s knowledge of every citizen’s social security number
  • For law enforcement purposes: An agency generally does not need to ask the individual to use this information, though they may need some form of legal process like a warrant to obtain that information (depending on what kind of information it is)
  • Protect the health and safety of an individual: May use that information without prior consent from the individual

What Should I Do if I Feel My Rights under the Privacy Act Have Been Violated by a Federal Agency?

The penalties for violating an individual’s rights under this Act carry criminal charges as well as civil damages.  If you feel your rights have been violated under the Privacy Act, you may want to consult a government lawyer.  Your attorney can advise you of your rights, help you file complaint against the specific agency that violated your privacy through illegal use of your records, and let you know if you may be entitled to money damages in a suit against the federal government.