An ideal seal for privacy in the federal government?
- By Ari Schwartz
- Jun 20, 1999
Privacy is a major concern of Internet users visiting commercial and government World Wide Web sites. In the private sector, one response has been the development of "seal" programs, such as the Good Housekeeping Seal, certifying that a site meets the minimum privacy standards. Is this an approach that government Web sites should adopt?
The Center for Democracy and Technology recently reviewed the three major seal programs: TrustE, BBBOnLine and CPA WebTrust. While the seals are no substitute for a baseline legal framework and have been adopted by only a small number of Web sites, they have begun to incorporate the idea of basic fair information practices into their programs, fostering at least some of the protection consumers deserve.
However, unlike the private sector, the federal government is bound by the Privacy Act of 1974. The Privacy Act codifies fair information practices and is stronger than the protection provided by the seal programs. The act prohibits the sharing of personal information among agencies, with few exceptions. It also allows individuals to find out what information agencies have collected about them and forces agencies to publicly describe their collections of personally identifiable information.
Federal agency Web sites could take a number of steps to aid the public in identifying their privacy rights. A common Privacy Act logo on all government privacy policies would help achieve this goal. This logo or seal could link to a page - housed at either the Justice Department or the new privacy office within OMB - with a set of resources. These resources could include:
* Frequently asked questions about the Privacy Act.
* The text of the law.
* A direct way to submit Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act requests online.
* General security and privacy tips for users of federal Web sites.
Taken together, the Privacy Act, implementation of P3P and the institution of a logo program geared to federal needs will represent a major step toward improving the online practices of the federal government.
-- Schwartz is a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, Washington, D.C.