U.S. Privacy Laws

Ware and his committee expected these principles to apply to all collections of personal data on individuals, but reality fell far short of this goal. Instead, the Ware committee report led to the 1974 Privacy Act, which embodies most of these principles, although that law applies only to data collected and maintained by the U.S. government. Nevertheless, the Privacy Act is a broad law, covering all data collected by the government. It is the strongest U.S. privacy law because of its breadth: It applies to all personal data held anywhere in the federal government.


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The United States subsequently passed laws protecting data collected and held by other organizations, but these laws apply piecemeal, by individual data type. For example, consumer credit is addressed in the Fair Credit Reporting Act, healthcare information in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), financial service organizations in the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act (GLBA), children’s web access in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and student records in the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Not surprisingly, these separate laws are inconsistent in protecting privacy.


The United States also allows state governments to regulate certain aspects of privacy. For example, Smith regularly publishes a compilation of state and federal privacy laws; the main body describes the United States, and an appendix addresses privacy laws in Canada and its provinces. The state laws can vary widely, sometimes making it difficult for someone to obey the privacy laws in every state. For instance, in Nevada, black-box recorders may not be installed in automobiles without the consent of the automobile’s owner or lessee. Similarly, in New Hampshire, the manufacturer must disclose to the owner the presence of an event data recorder in a new automobile. However, in both New York state and North Dakota, there are further restrictions on the kinds of data the recorders can capture; for instance, in North Dakota, the data may be used only for servicing the automobile or for improving safety.