The Privacy Act explained

In the 1940s, the agents assigned to tail Frank Sinatra would jot notes about his social life, clip gossip columns and sneak photographs of his correspondence. They mailed the information with typewritten reports to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who compiled a dossier of more than 2,000 pages on Sinatra.

Such data gathering on celebrities — and years later on Vietnam War protesters, civil rights activists and presidents' political enemies — was the reason Congress passed the Privacy Act of 1974.

The act:

* Guards against the misuse of personal information by federal agencies.

* Allows citizens to learn how agencies collect, maintain and use records.

* Permits individuals to see files collected on them.

* Lets individuals correct erroneous information.

* Applies to files maintained by agencies, but may not apply to information bought from commercial databases.

Now agencies such as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms use commercial database giants such as ChoicePoint Inc. to access similar information, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center. ChoicePoint promises its clients that they can "search billions of records from your desktop computer.

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