Outsourcing: End-run around privacy restrictions

Summary:Strict limits on the information government can collect are not applicable when the collection is done by contractors. A GAO report recommends changes.

By outsourcing the building of rich dossiers, the government is sidestepping checks on surveillance approved in the wake of domestic spy scandals involving the FBI, Army and other agencies in the 1960s and 1970s.

That, according to the Washington Post, is the essence of an 83-page Government Accountability Office report on privacy rights.

The problem is that private companies are not held to the same standards as government, even though the effect on citizens' privacy is the same.

According to the Post, GAO studied the information buying practices of the Justice Dept., the Dept. of Homeland Security, the State Dept. and the Social Security Administration, and found the agencies
often do not limit the collection and use of information about law-abiding citizens, as required by the Privacy Act of 1974 and other laws. The agencies also don't ensure the accuracy of the information they are buying, according to the GAO report. That's in part because of a lack of clear guidance from the agencies and the Office of Management and Budget on guidelines known as "fair information practices," the report said.

At the same time, the contractors are not bound by those "fair information practices," and they often don't comply with all of them, the report said. Companies do not notify individuals when information is collected, for instance. They limit individuals' access to records about themselves, and they generally do not have provisions for correcting mistakes, the report said.

Congress should pass rules requiring private companies to adhere to the stricter rules, the report says.

Topics: Government, Outsourcing, Privacy

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