The Government Accountability Office (GAO) told Congress today that the U.S. government isn’t doing enough to protect the privacy of the information it collects on people. But the GAO is missing the bigger point: The government should not be able to keep information secret if it is the basis for official action or new policies. Otherwise, we’re not talking about "privacy" — we’re talking about "secrecy." And if the information it collects isn’t used for those purposes, well, maybe it shouldn’t be collecting it in the first place.
The GAO’s report does mention that Congress should carefully restrict use of information that the government collects, but doesn’t seem as concerned with the amount of information it is collecting. Restrictions on dissemination without restrictions on collection just create a government that cannot be held accountable to the people it was created to serve.
The report also complains that the Privacy Act only applies to "systems of records," not all information collected by the government. If only that were true, reporter Toni Locy wouldn’t be facing hefty fines for refusing to testify about her sources in a story about the anthrax investigation. Steven Hatfill, identified as a "person of interest" in that case, has sued the government over the release of information about him. The information, however, was not from a "system of records," but from general knowledge that quite a few federal employees knew about an investigation, or even heard directly in the public comments of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. But somehow, his Privacy Act case is proceeding through the courts, and Locy’s refusal to betray her sources of some of that information leaves her facing fines of $5,000 a day.
The GAO needs to know that if Privacy Act reform is necessary, it’s largely in the other way — we don’t need a law that mandates that the federal government establish complete secrecy as a standard operating procedure. The people have a right to know how their government operates — who it favors and disfavors, who it awards subsidies and benefits, who it protects from prosecution or punishment. Without access to this information, which often entails release of some personally identifiable information, our government gets to operate in the dark, and the people are the worse off for it.