Today's Article
'Existing laws for
protecting individuals’
personal info may no
longer be sufficient
given current
practices,' says an
The American Spark
Federal Privacy Laws Outdated By Technology

By Cliff Montgomery - July 31st, 2012

“Technological Changes Have Made Key Elements of [U.S.] Privacy Laws Outdated,” recently testified a
leading member of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) before a Senate subcommittee.
A record of
that testimony was released today.

The GAO “is an independent, non-partisan agency” which serves as America’s “congressional watchdog.” The
GAO occasionally infuriates members of both major parties, so it must be doing its job fairly well.

The American Spark publishes the ‘highlights’ that GAO garnered from the testimony of Gregory
Wilshusen, the Office’s Director of Information Security Issues.

What GAO Found

Technological developments since the Privacy Act became law in 1974 have changed the way information is
organized and shared among organizations and individuals. Such advances have rendered some of the
provisions of the Privacy Act and the E-Government Act of 2002 inadequate to fully protect all personally
identifiable information collected, used, and maintained by the federal government. For example, GAO has
reported on challenges in protecting the privacy of personal information relative to agencies’ use of Web 2.0
and data-mining technologies.

“While laws and guidance set minimum requirements for agencies, they may not protect personal information
in all circumstances in which it is collected and used throughout the government and may not fully adhere to
key privacy principles. GAO has identified issues in three major areas:

  • Applying privacy protections consistently to all federal collection and use of personal
    information. The Privacy Act’s protections only apply to personal information when it is considered part
    of a ‘system of records’ as defined by the act. However, agencies routinely access such information in
    ways that may not fall under this definition.

  • Ensuring that use of personally identifiable information is limited to a stated purpose. Current law
    and guidance impose only modest requirements for describing the purposes for collecting personal
    information and how it will be used. This could allow for unnecessarily broad ranges of uses of the

  • Establishing effective mechanisms for informing the public about privacy protections. Agencies
    are required to provide notices in the Federal Register of information collected, categories of individuals
    about whom information is collected, and the intended use of the information, among other things.
    However, concerns have been raised whether this is an effective mechanism for informing the public.

“The potential for data breaches at federal agencies also pose a serious risk to the privacy of individuals’
personal information. OMB has specified actions agencies should take to prevent and respond to such

“In addition, GAO has previously reported that agencies can take steps that include

  • assessing the privacy implications of a planned information system or data collection prior to

  • ensuring the implementation of a robust information security program; and

  • limiting the collection of personal information, the time it is retained, and who has access to it, as well as
    implementing encryption.

“However, GAO and inspectors general have continued to report on vulnerabilities in security controls over
agency systems and weaknesses in their information security programs, potentially resulting in the compromise
of personal information. These risks are illustrated by recent security incidents involving individuals’ personal
information. Federal agencies reported 13,017 such incidents in 2010 and 15,560 in 2011, an increase of 19

Why GAO Did This Study

“The federal government collects and uses personal information on individuals in increasingly sophisticated
ways, and its reliance on information technology (IT) to collect, store, and transmit this information has also
grown. While this enables federal agencies to carry out many of the government’s critical functions, concerns
have been raised that the existing laws for protecting individuals’ personal information may no longer be
sufficient given current practices.

“Moreover, vulnerabilities arising from agencies’ increased dependence on IT can result in the compromise of
sensitive personal information, such as inappropriate use, modification, or disclosure.

“GAO was asked to provide a statement describing (1) the impact of recent technology developments on
existing laws for privacy protection in the federal government and (2) actions agencies can take to protect
against and respond to breaches involving personal information.

“In preparing this statement, GAO relied on previous work in these areas as well as a review of more recent
reports on security vulnerabilities.

What GAO Recommends

“GAO previously suggested that Congress consider amending applicable privacy laws to address identified
issues. GAO has also made numerous recommendations to agencies over the last several years to address
weaknesses in policies and procedures related to privacy and to strengthen their information security

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