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The Privacy Act of 1974

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Purpose

This legislation was enacted on 31st December 1974 to establish a Code of Fair Information Practice which was meant to govern the collection, use, dissemination, and maintenance of individuals’ private information held by the federal government agencies in their systems of records. In these systems, information is categorized in a manner that enables its retrieval by an identifier assigned to an individual such as name or social security number. disclose the types of records they keep by publishing in the federal Registry. The act elaborates how an individual can lawfully access and amend the records of information about them; and stipulates the record keeping requirements that an agency need to fulfill. The Code of Fair Information Practices was recommended in a report that had been published by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The report emphasized on five principles: no record should be regarded as absolutely private; a person has a right to establish the information contained in his/her record, as well as its use; an individual should have the capacity to restrict the information use to the purpose it was intended for at the time of initial collection; individuals should be provided with mechanisms of amending erroneous information; the federal agencies dealing with individual records must prevent their misuse and ensure their reliability.

Exemptions from Privacy

Although the agencies are prohibited by the act from disclosing personal records without the owner's   consent, several exceptions have been provided. These exceptions followed the work of Private Protection Study Commission which established that the act had been vague, and would not have met its intended purposes. It was agreed that the act should be reviewed and updated. The fundamental aims of the act were to remain relevant as more definitions were provided to upgrade it to the realities such as current information systems and technology. Among the provisions for disclosure include:

Subsections ‘j’ and ‘k’ of this legislation provide the instances when the federal agencies can lawfully claim exemptions. The act allows for seven provisions, which permit access to individuals’ records and their amendment, in accordance to the requirement that the agency should only hold necessary and relevant information. These provisions are that if the data is to be used during: the investigation aimed at determining eligibility and qualification of a potential employee in military service and federal contracts,  the evaluation of an enlisted man for promotion, and evaluation of individual for federal service appointments.  Other exemptions are meant to facilitate the security of the President, maintain statistical records, and provide investigatory materials for the purpose of law enforcement.

Effects of Private Act of 1974 on Health Care

The enactment of the Private Act of 1974 introduced complex legalities and increased costs when dealing with individuals’ private information. Misuse or unauthorized disclosure of personal records attracts heavy penalties; a situation which reduces the chance of information sharing for the purpose of comparison. There are several critics who voice such concerns in medical publications such as Annals of Internal Medicine, and advocates for the revision to be done on the act. Researchers argue that the legislation interferes with their capacity to perform chart-based exploration as well as contact patients for prospective evaluation and follow-up. According to a survey by the University of Michigan, the legislation has resulted into a drop in the follow-up survey on patients following a heart attack from about 95% to 34%. The enactment of the act has also rapidly increased the duration of enrolling patients of semi permanent diseases such as cancer to various organisations, and increased the recruitment costs. Furthermore, arriving at an informed consent in research studies require across-the-board details regarding the manner in which the private health information is to be kept private. These lengthy legalistic sections meant to ensure privacy end up making medical documents complex and incomprehensible to the patient who have to read, understand, and sign them (Glee et al, 2002). This follows that, the Privacy Act of 1974 is impacting negatively on quality and cost of medical research. Researchers insist that as much as legislations are passed to ensure privacy, quality, and comprehensive research works should not be compromised.

The complexity of provisions in the Private Act of 1974 makes medical centers and physicians withhold medical information in an overly guarded manner due to uncertainty regarding their privacy responsibilities. To establish these responsibilities requires advanced practices and systems as well as an increase in staff time. These measures, however, do not guarantee full compliance as errors or omissions can still be made resulting into legal battles. The risk, coupled with reduced costs deters these physicians and private medical centers making them opt for complete withholding of medical information. This ends up depleting scientists the raw data on which to base their research works which in effect aggravates medical risks in the society. Additionally, due to the legal complexity in Europe and United States, several researchers have opted to base their work in the less developed nations. These nations have inadequate infrastructure to facilitate effective research; a factor that slows down progress. Furthermore, due to insufficient ethical guidelines, several research firms operate with near impunity; and this endangers the human subjects who are engaged in various experimentations.

Current Application of Private Act of 1974

As amended, the Private Act of 1974 protects some individual records held by the federal government. The legislation covers the systems of records maintained and retrieved by an agency using a personal identifier, their routine uses, and how to address customer complaints. Presently, the protection offered by this legislation does not entirely cover private records that are not in the hands of the federal government, for example, bank account details, credit reports, and medical records. Some of these exemptions resulted following complaints that the act restricted quality while increasing costs of operation. However, some records in private hands are still protected under certain state and federal laws with the aim of safeguarding national interest, such as those enforced by the Federal trade Commission.

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