As US citizens we are very concerned with our right to individual privacy and we protect that right judicially. The Privacy Act of 1974 provides safeguards against invasion of personal privacy through the misuse of records by Federal Agencies. This Act was passed in 1974 to establish controls over what personal information is collected, maintained, used and disseminated by agencies in the executive branch of the Federal government. The Privacy Act only applies to records that are located in a “system of records.” As defined in the Privacy Act, a system of records is “a group of any records under the control of any agency from which information is retrieved by the name of the individual or by some identifying number, symbol, or other identifying particular assigned to the individual.”
The Privacy Act guarantees the following:
• The right to see records about oneself, subject to Privacy Act exemptions;
• The right to request the amendment of records that are not accurate, relevant, timely or complete.
• The right of individuals to be protected against unwarranted invasion of their privacy resulting from the collection, maintenance, use, and disclosure of personal information.
The events of 9/11 however required reflection and rethinking of those rights as the federal government began to enact several measures to forestall the activities of terrorists. One example is what is known as the National Security Letter. The National Security Letter (NSL) is a powerful surveillance tool that allows the government to acquire an enormous amount of private information on an individual or organization without a warrant. Federal investigators issue thousands of them each year to banks, ISPs, car dealers, insurance companies, and doctors. Recipients of an NSL are restricted by a ‘gag order’ in that they may not discuss or disclose the information that was sought. These letters are distributed to recipient requesting that the information is nondisclosed to the public. The NSL has been utilized more frequently since the 2001 terror attacks and became a part of the USA Patriot Act. Congress enacted the Patriot Act by overwhelming, bipartisan margins, arming law enforcement with new tools to detect and prevent terrorism.
Despite government reassurances, civil liberty groups were concerned about privacy issues and government overreach. A lawsuit was filed 11 years ago and as a part of this lawsuit a federal judge ordered the release of the particulars that government authorities were seeking using an NSL given to a small ISP. According to the court document, it was determined that authorities were seeking web browsing history, IP addresses of everyone a person of interest had corresponded with, and records of all online purchases the person had made. There was no clarification as to why this information was requested by authorities or how it would be utilized.
While using tools such as the NSL can be of great assistance in the war on terrorism, concerns still remain with those that have a vested interest in the privacy rights of US citizens. We need to be ever vigilant against the activities of terrorists, but we also need to remain concerned about relinquishing our rights to privacy.