What is the Privacy Act?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Privacy Act is an American law which was passed in 1974 to address growing concerns about the privacy of individuals, and the way in which the government kept, maintained, and controlled records. The core of the Privacy Act involved individual control over government records, with the Act stating that people must be allowed to see their own records, and that they have the right to amend incorrect records, and to find out how their records are being used.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

People often discuss the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act together, because the two acts both deal with government transparency, and they empower individual citizens. The Privacy Act, however, is more focused on protecting the privacy of individuals, while the Freedom of Information Act is designed to make information held by the government more accessible to the public, as long as free access would not compromise national security.

Under the Privacy Act, government agencies must have systems of records, and they must control and protect those records. Information cannot be exchanged between agencies except in specific circumstances, or with approval from the person the records concern. When a records system includes things which can be used to identify individuals, such as names, Social Security Numbers, and other identifiers, these individuals have the right to request copies of their records.

People can file a Privacy Act request to see records held by government agencies, and they may also correct errors if they identify any. Government agencies will not release information which is considered a potential security risk, and they will also not release information if personal identifiers are not used. For example, a government agency which keeps records about organizations would not be required to release information about those organizations to members of those organizations, unless something like a list of names was used to index the file and orient it in the agency's filing system.

The Privacy Act also protects citizens from disclosure of their information to people who are not authorized. People cannot file Privacy Act requests for people other than themselves, for example, and the Privacy Act may also be used to restrict Freedom of Information Act requests, on the grounds that granting certain requests could compromise personal privacy. The Act also does not cover materials which are considered historical or archival; for example, getting information about someone who lived in a prior century is relatively easy, because that information is deemed archival in nature.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


As an adult you have rights as an adult. Request they not violate your privacy and put a lock on the door.


i'm 21 and live at home with both my parents. rent my bedroom and i wanted to know is it legal for my parents to look through my belongings while i'm not there or without my say so.

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