Data Privacy Goes [Back] to Washington

Posted by

One of most interesting parts of the “Framework to Advance Interoperable Rules (FAIR) on Privacy” released on October 22, 2018 by the Information Technology Industry Council, a lobbying group representing Adobe, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Visa and many others, may be the admission that the fundamental privacy principles intended to inform the development of future legislation were designed some 45 years ago in Washington D.C. by the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

In July 1973, the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare recommended the enactment of a Federal “Code of Fair Information Practice” with respect to automated personal data systems in a special report titled “Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens.” Former Secretary Elliot L. Richardson, “in response to growing concern about the harmful consequences that may result from uncontrolled application of computer and telecommunications technology to the collection, storage and use of data about individual citizens,” formed a special advisory committee on automated personal data systems, tasked with analyzing and making recommendations regarding necessary protections and safeguards.

Among the many groundbreaking concepts contained in the report, the first is an itemization of five basic principles supported the proposed Federal “Code of Fair Information Practice”:

  • There must be no personal data record-keeping systems whose very existence is secret;
  • There must be a way for an individual to find out what information about him [or her] is in a record and how it is used;
  • There must be a way for an individual to prevent information about him [or her] that was obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for other purposes without his [or her] consent;
  • There must be a way for an individual to correct or amend a record of identifiable information about him [or her]; and
  • Any organization creating, maintaining, using or disseminating records of identifiable personal data must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use and must take precautions to prevent misuse of the data.

The report also set forth numerous requirements on organizations maintaining automated personal data systems, including designation of “one person immediately responsible for the system,” taking reasonable security precautions, prohibitions against transferring personal information to other systems, maintaining data accuracy, and logging all data processing.

Finally, the report identified basic “Rights of Individual Data Subjects,” including the need for consent, and the right to access and to correct data.

While it is unknown exactly how Congress will respond to the industry efforts to develop standards in the area of data privacy and protection, the framework proposed by ITI contains the bold assertion that it is “Inspired by the Fair Information Practice Principles” set forth in the 1973 report. Whatever actions federal or state legislators or regulators may take in the future, the following poem, written in 1940 and reprinted in the 1973 report, provides a chilling reminder of how dehumanizing automated data systems can be.


The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07/M/378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)


He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

One against whom there was no official complaint,

And all the reports on his conduct agree

That, in the modem sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,

For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.

Except for the War until the day he retired

He worked in a factory and never got fired,

But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors, Inc.

Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,

For his Union reports that he paid his dues,

(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)

And our Social Psychology workers found

That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day

And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.

Policies taken out In his name prove that he was fully insured,

And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare

He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan

And had everything necessary to the Modem Man,

A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

Our researches into Public Opinion are content

That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;

When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.

He was married and added five children to the population,

Which our Eugenicist says was the right number for a parent of his generation,

And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.


Report at 123 (W. H. Auden Copyright © 1940 and renewed 1968 by W. H. Auden. From Collected Shorter Poems, 1927.1957. Reprinted by permission of Random House. Inc.)