Personal Privacy in an Information Society


Issues of public policy rarely, if ever, emerge on the political scene fully developed and fully articulated. Rather, they result from gradual changes in the social and economic environment, which are then identified and intensively debated. This has been the pattern with the subject of this report. The relationships between individuals and various record-keeping organizations have been developing over a long period of time. An analysis of these relationships and their consequences for personal privacy lie at the heart of the findings and recommendations in this report.

In seeking to address the privacy issue as it emerges in a variety of settings, the Commission has constantly sought to examine the balance between the legitimate, sometimes competing, interests of the individual, the record-keeping organization, and society in general. Each of these interests has been weighed carefully, and, the Commission believes, given fair and forthright treatment. While broad principles did emerge as our investigations proceeded, for our report we decided not to center our recommendations on an omnibus approach. We concentrated, instead, on recommendations for the specific record-keeping relationships that characterize each of the areas we studied. It was clear to the Commission that historic development and current realities required each area to be dealt with separately.

The Commission's work, we hope, will contribute to a growing public awareness and increased dialogue about the various dimensions of personal privacy. To the extent that some awareness and dialogue have occurred already as the result of our extensive hearings schedule, we are pleased. The Privacy Protection Study Commission was directed by the Congress, to make a "study of the data banks, automatic data processing programs, and information systems of governmental, regional, and private organizations, in order to determine the standards and procedures in force for the protection of personal information." On the basis of this study the Commission was also asked to recommend to the President and the Congress the extent, if any, to which the principles and requirements of the Privacy Act of 1974 should be applied to organizations other than agencies of the Federal Executive branch and to make such other legislative recommendations as the Commission deems necessary to protect the privacy of individuals while meeting the legitimate needs of government and society for information. This report is the Commission's response to that mandate.

Our general mandate was supplemented with some specific instructions. We were directed to report to the President and to the Congress on:

The first two areas are treated in Chapters 4 and 14, respectively. The question of whether the Privacy Act standard of damages should be expanded to general damages is set forth in Chapter 13. That chapter also discusses the issue of extending the standards for security and confidentiality.

On the complex question of Federal-State relations and the separation of powers, the Commission recognizes that these Constitutional principles are also the basis on which all of our recommendations had to be made. Chapter 12 addresses this subject. It should be noted that each of the recommendations in the other chapters are also framed within our perception of their Constitutional implications. Thus, while many of the recommendations call for Federal action, others are specifically directed to policy makers at the State and local levels of government.

Throughout the two years it has been at work, the Commission has made every effort to assure maximum participation by those most likely to be affected by our recommendations. Sixty days of hearings and meetings were held, during which over 300 witnesses testified. After the initial adoption of particular recommendations, they were released for public comment. The observations we received were taken into account in making our final recommendations. In its Privacy Act evaluation, the Commission had extensive communications with Federal agencies and held discussion workshops with them. Also, together with the Domestic Council's Committee on the Right of Privacy, we conducted a conference in which many officials from a number of States came together to discuss the application of the principles and requirements of the Privacy Act of 1974 to State and local governments. Countless individuals and organizations from the public and private sectors gave generously of their time in order to assist us in our efforts. Space does not permit an individual listing of each of them, but the report is liberally sprinkled with references to many of those to whom we owe our appreciation. I would be remiss, however, if I did not offer special thanks to Messrs. Thomas S. McFee, John P. Fanning, and Edward Gleiman of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; and to Mr. William T. Cavaney of the Department of Defense. In addition to arranging for several individuals of outstanding quality and dedication to be available to the Commission for periods of time, they also continually evidenced keen interest and encouragement for the Commission's work. We are also in debt to the Chairmen, Members, and staffs of the Senate and House Government Operations Committees who continually supported the Commission in matters concerning its tenure and funding.

No work of this scope could have been completed without the wholehearted day-to-day cooperation of many people. To each of the Commissioners, I extend my deep gratitude for his constant dedication to the demanding schedule of hearings and meetings. Each diligently applied his particular professional expertise to the frequent, and often lengthy, sessions on the varied subject areas we covered.

Our staff performed with unusual devotion in what proved to be a most intensive and difficult effort. Their labor was marked by ongoing, exhaustive searches for all sides of the issues the Commission examined. My sincere appreciation to each of them.

David F. Linowes