Federal Privacy Laws

In general, the federal government enforces privacy rights at the federal level and state governments regulate privacy standards at the state level. Depending on the area of privacy laws at issue, different government agencies have enforcement authority. For example, Office of the Attorney General, Federal Trade Commission, and Department of Health and Human Services have certain enforcement authority.

What are federal privacy rights?

The federal Privacy Act of 1974 applies privacy standards for the information that federal executives and agencies can access and disclose. However, these requirements apply only to information about U.S. citizens and legal alien residents. They do not apply to illegal immigrants or corporations.

Any information these agencies or executives store must comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s Fair Information Practice Principles. A part of federal privacy laws includes making certain offenses federal crimes rather than state crimes. For instance, the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 makes acts of identity theft a federal crime. This includes using or possessing unauthorized identification documents. Under this law, identity theft that constitutes a felony under state law, can be raised to the level of a federal offense.

Do federal privacy laws provide for privacy over electronic communications?

Yes, the federal government has enacted laws to help provide greater privacy protections over electronic communications. For example, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984 created a category of “protected computer” that enjoys a heightened level of security. It includes federal government computers, computers used in interstate or foreign commerce, and computers used by financial institutions. It applies to consumer information stored on computers. By providing greater security for these computers, the government aims to provide greater security for a consumer’s information.

In 1986, Congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”) to amend federal wiretap laws. The ECPA prohibits the interception of wire or electronic communications without a warrant. These include communications through pagers, cell phones, emails or other computer transmissions. Finally, the ECPA also makes it more difficult to access stored communication records, such as phone logs. These provisions control the personal information that is readily available to law enforcement agencies for the protection of individual privacy.

In 1998, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”) was enacted, which provides parents with greater control over what information can be collected about their children. Now, websites must provide express notice and get parental consent before collecting information from children thirteen or younger. COPPA also restricts marketing attempts directed at children. Accordingly, websites that cater to a younger audience are limited from using targeted marketing on the website. Violations of these provisions can lead to prosecution by the FTC, and if found guilty, severe fines and penalties.

With all of these laws, the challenge is to stay up-to-date with technology in order to continue to protect privacy rights.

At our law firm, we provide guidance and legal expertise to manage and protect your privacy. You may contact us in order to discuss the various steps that can better protect your privacy rights.