I found this article in The Examiner, a syndicated newspaper. The author has several really good articles, if you care to google-search her name. Melanie Scarborough: Wasnt there once a federal privacy act? WASHINGTON No agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency, except pursuant to a written request by, or with the prior written consent of, the individual to whom the record pertains. The Privacy Act of 1974 In the early 1970s, the nascent computerization of records was a boon for combating welfare fraud: Creating a central database made it easier to track how much money was going to whom. But Elliott Richardson, Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now Health and Human Services ), also foresaw the danger of such databases. He appointed a committee to study the situation, which concluded in 1973 that the net effect of computerization is that it is becoming much easier for record-keeping systems to affect people than for people to affect record-keeping systems. The committee recommended five principles that were the basis for the Privacy Act of 1974: 1. There must be no personal data record-keeping systems whose very existence is secret. 2. There must be a way for an individual to find out what information about him is in a record and how it is used. 3. There must be a way for an individual to prevent information about him that was obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for other purposes without his consent. 4. There must be a way for an individual to correct or amend a record of identifiable information about him. 5. Any organization creating, maintaining, using, or disseminating records of identifiable personal data must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use and must take precautions to prevent misuse of the data. Quaint, isnt it? Keeping secret files on citizens and sharing that information with other entities is the principal function of many federal agencies today. So why doesnt Congress either tighten the Privacy Act and insist that agencies abide it, or be honest enough to take it off the books? One of the problems with the law is that it has too many loopholes in particular, the exemption for any agency component charged with preventing, controlling, or reducing crime. That allows such abuses as the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services claiming that their Offices of Civil Rights are law-enforcement agencies, and therefore their records of discrimination complaints are off-limits. What purpose does that serve except to deny the rights of the accused? When the Department of Energy added to its list of exempted records those pertaining to employee complaints and concerns, whistleblower protection, and its Office of Intelligence, did Congress ask any questions? Among the worst offenders is the Department of Transportation, which compiles secret records on air-travelers that they are not allowed to see even if they are mistakenly placed on a watch list. And DOT cannot use terrorism as an excuse; it began declaring exemptions to the Privacy Act long before Sept. 11, 2001. For instance, in 1998, when the Coast Guard was building a database on boat-owners to provide a nationwide pool of vessel and vessel-owner information, DOT recognized that as a violation of the Privacy Act. So it simply declared an exemption, saying the information could be used for law-enforcement purposes. The Privacy Act specifically protects information containing personal identifiers, and nothing is more personally identifiable than fingerprints or DNA. Nonetheless, the Department of Homeland Security declared its database of biometric identifiers exempt from privacy law. In doing so, DHS offered the same excuses as other agencies the need to avoid disclosure of activity techniques and to protect the anonymity of government informants. But DHS adds a more stunning explanation: because disclosure could alert the subject to the investigation of an actual or potential criminal, civil, or regulatory violation. Since that wording includes everyone who might someday get a parking ticket, who still has a right to privacy? We now have a government that routinely insists it is entitled to withhold information from citizens, but that citizens have no right to withhold information from their government. You cant even open a bank account without submitting personal identifiers so it can be tracked. Naïve people argue that no one should object to being monitored by the government unless theyre doing something wrong. But privacy is the manifestation of freedom. And the principal distinction between a free society and a police state is who keeps tabs on whom. Examiner columnist Melanie Scarborough lives in Alexandria, VA.