How Our Personal Right to Privacy is Being Impacted By Big Government Databases Essay

How Our Personal Right to Privacy is Being Impacted By Big Government Databases

Everyone has a right to be left alone - How Our Personal Right to Privacy is Being Impacted By Big Government Databases Essay introduction. This also includes the preserve to choose whom personal information will be disclosed. However, with vast amounts of personal information held on government databases, access to such private information is no longer controlled by the individuals to whom these details belong. Government databases ensure easy access to personal information and this is a blatant violation of privacy. In an ideal situation, access to personal information held on government databases should be given to the individual involved and the government personnel handling the information. However, this is not usually the case. Furthermore, access to personal information on these government databases might broken by unauthorized people using sophisticated computer programs and techniques. Government databases may be useful but they are an easy route to personal information. Without these databases such personal information would remain safe.

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In the course of administration, government offices may require personal information from individuals. This information is useful in providing services to citizens such as social benefits, health, pension, social security, criminal justice, etc. This information is often revealed in confidence to the relevant government agency. Once this information is gathered especially online, a database is created. For efficiency, these databases are often in electronic form and accessed online. Government databases serve many useful purposes especially tracking criminals. Woodward (2003) writes about the uses of databases in tracking criminals and terrorists. With government databases personal information that was revealed in confidence is not locked away in file cabinets. The electronic nature of this information makes it easily accessed by anyone. In these databases information can be accessed by strangers and workers employed in these places. Concern is raised over the protection of personal information held on government databases. This concern is plausible because if personal information gets into wrong hands, it might be used for various purposes- some of these purposes are not in the best interest of the individuals whom the information is about.

Increasing, the United States (US) has become a “surveillance society.” People can hardly do anything without being noticed. With these databases government watches every individual and deprives them of the right to privacy. Leahy (2006) confirms the erosion of privacy in American society. Government databases in the US hold vast amount of data. This data often ranges from details about employees in a government establishment to information about citizens placed on social benefits. There is a wide range of information held on these government databases. Government databases hold personal information such as the individual’s name, house address, and social security number (SSN). Furthermore, depending in the particular office, government databases can also hold sensitive information such as financial history, health records and family details. There are recent concerns that the US government is not doing enough to protect information on these databases. For example, a lot of information about typical Americans has been gathered by the ADVISE program (Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight and Semantic Enhancement). Also, the US Census bureau holds large amounts of data about American citizens. What structures are put in place to protect this data? However, the question is, how much can government do to secure these databases when computer technology makes it possible for hackers and other experienced computer users to access vast amounts of information from a distance? Access to this information is a breach of privacy. Databases may be efficient ways of storing and managing information but they do not ensure the privacy of personal information. In the past, say forty years ago, personal information collected by government was safely locked away in file cabinets. However, with the current technology today unauthorized persons can access these files.

Personal information is valuable to businesses, financial institutions and to criminals as well who need it to perpetrate fraud. Government databases are a rich source of personal information which businesses need. Due to the many services which government provides, these databases collect large and diverse amounts of data. Depending on the sector of the economy, businesses share the personal details of prospective customers which they gather. These businesses use personal information to sell new products and services. The personal information they gather makes the job easier for marketing personnel because they easily “zero in” on prospective customer rather than “combing” the market endlessly. It gives direction to the activities of these organizations.

Government databases raise concern in this digital age more than ever before since it is very easy to share information these days. With databases selective disclosure of information is usually a foregone conclusion. Once information is placed on the Internet, the privacy of that information is compromised. With skilled programmers on the Internet, it only takes time before the security protocols are broken and unauthorized people have access to the information. People employ more ways than one to access the information because of the benefits that accrue from such information. For example, marketers find private information held on government databases useful in identifying prospective customers and zeroing in on them. This makes their job easier and they are able to sell products and services to the right people without much ado.

Regulating privacy on government databases is a not an easy task. Many flaws were identified in the Privacy Act of 1974 soon after it was passed. Although the Privacy Act provides basic protection of personal information, over the years, the provisions of the act have been overtaken by events. For instance, the act refers to a “system of records” however, this term is no longer applicable in this technology driven age where vast amounts of data are stored on computers and can be exchanged at the touch of a button. The term is outdated with advancements in database technology. With the use of this term, the act is restrictive, as information which does not fall under that description is not covered. Steps are taken to ensure the privacy of personal information with the passing of the E-Government Act.

The constitution of the United States may not have the term “privacy” in it but the US Supreme court has ruled in favor of various issues involving privacy. Warren and Brandeis (1890, pp. 193-220) refer to privacy as the “right to be let alone.” But can privacy be ensured with vast amounts of valuable and sensitive personal information stored on government databases? Often, this right to privacy has been derived from the various amendments of the US constitution. The right to information privacy was first recognized by the US Supreme Court in Whalen v. Roe. The Supreme Court held that the constitution protects two kinds of individual interests: preventing personal matters from being disclosed and making certain vital decisions.

On a sad note, there is no single comprehensive law in the US that provides for the protection of data in order to ensure privacy. Apart from interpretations of the constitution offered by courts and international agreements, there are a few laws that deal with the protection of data- the Privacy At of 1974 and the Computer Matching and Privacy Act, to mention a few. The Computer Security Act of 1987 provides for the protection of sensitive personal information held in computer systems that belong to the federal government. Although these laws provide for the protection of personal information held by the federal government, it does not cover personal information held by private organizations. Aldrich (1983, p.489) asserts that the Privacy Act is “the centerpiece of US privacy law affecting government record-keeping.” The Act addresses problems posed by electronic systems which hold personal information maintained by the federal government. Furthermore, it requires the consent of individuals for the disclosure of information held in such databases. However, this is just what the Privacy Act provides in theory. There is a different “ball game” in practice. Computer technology offers the opportunity for advanced programmers to access information from these databases. The information held on these databases is valuable so people will go the extra mile to get it. With sophisticated programs, hackers, crackers and other criminals are able to “steal from a distance” and elude these laws.  Schwarz (2008) notes that the federal government is not doing enough to protect personal information held on its databases. Consequently the federal government needs to expand coverage of the Privacy Act, close loopholes in the Privacy Act, improve privacy impact assessments, improve privacy reporting/audits and give leadership to privacy administration in the US.

The right to privacy in clearly recognized in US society and by the law. However, the security of personal information held on government databases still remains a thorny issue. The law may be properly articulated but enforcement is usually the problem. With rapidly evolving strategies and techniques on computers, it is possible to steal information from these databases without being noticed, much less being caught. Government databases are useful in the administration of various services but since this personal information is stored on computers that are often connected to the internet, there is a strong possibility that it will end up in the wrong hands. Government databases increase surveillance in American society and make individuals live without any right to privacy.


Aldrich, Robert “Privacy Protection Law in the United States,” (NTIA Report 82-98) in U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Government Operations. Oversight of the Privacy Act of 1974: Hearings. 98 th Congress, 1 st  Session, 7-8 June 1983, 489 (Y4.G74/7:P93/11/974).

Leahy, Patrick (2006) “Ensuring Liberty And Security Through Checks And

Balances: A Fresh Start For The Senate Judiciary Committee In The New 110th Congress,” Dec. 13 Retrieved March 10 2009 from

Schwarz, Ari (2008) “Protecting Personal Information: Is the Federal Government doing enough?” Washington DC: Center for Democracy and Technology

Warren, Samuel D. and Brandeis, Louis D., “The Right to Privacy,” Harvard Law Review 4 (1890):193-220.

Woodward, John D. Jr. Et Al (2003) Biometrics: Identity Assurance In The Information Age 247

Ontario: McGraw Hill.

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