By Lee Roberts
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Oct. 27, 2012) – Congress passed the Privacy Act of 1974 long before Americans began surfing the World Wide Web and social media sites could befriend them. In today’s atmosphere where people communicate in the Twittersphere and network on Facebook, how are government agencies expected to apply this landmark legislation as communication technologies evolve?
Bonnie Jagoditz, assistant district counsel for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District, said social media is the big question right now with the Privacy Act and how it applies to third party social media pages like Twitter and Facebook.
She explained that the problem with social media sites and how they relate to the Privacy Act is that the government simply doesn’t own them. When citizens choose to communicate with a government agency on Facebook or Twitter, she said they may unknowingly yet willingly provide personally identifiable information that is now visible on a public forum.
“We may have control of our Facebook page, but we don’t have control of the mechanism within which you are posting information and reading information,” Jagoditz said.
While the United States Government promotes transparency and the use of new technologies to promote greater openness in government, federal agencies also emphasize safeguarding personally identifiable information “to protect that information from loss and misuse.” The E-Government Act of 2002 also deals with security concerns on government information systems, but, as may be expected, does not address newer technologies that have surfaced over the past decade.
Jagoditz advises the public to be very careful when posting information on government or public social media pages to protect both privacy and identities.
“It’s going into a forum between you, the agency, and every other person that looks at that page,” Jagoditz said.
Peter R. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C., signed a Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies June 25, 2010. It outlines guidance for third-party websites and applications requiring federal agencies to protect individual privacy.
This memorandum requires privacy notices on government third-party websites and applications to outline privacy policies and to direct individuals to an agency’s official website where private information can be safeguarded if provided.
For example, the U.S. Department of Defense privacy landing page states that “third-party websites and applications are not owned, operated, or controlled by the Department of Defense,” but are nonetheless integral to Internet-based operations across the Department of Defense and used to augment official communication. More importantly, it adds that personally identifiable information is not harvested, collected, maintained or shared on these sites.
Why the need for the Privacy Act?
“There was a concern that the government maintains a significant amount of information about individuals and that that information wasn’t being protected from unwarranted or what would be considered unlawful invasions of privacy,” Jagoditz said.
The act went into effect Sept. 27, 1975 and addressed both government and public concerns.
“The Privacy Act was designed to do two things – to balance the government’s need to maintain information about individuals against individuals’ right to privacy,” Jagoditz said.
Jagoditz explained that the Privacy Act finds the right balance by restricting the government’s ability to disclose information, allowing individuals to access information that is maintained about them, ensures the right of individuals to amend anything that is incorrect, and establishes fair collection, maintenance and dissemination policies.
“As a general rule, whatever the government collects about you it cannot release to other individuals without your written consent,” Jagoditz said.