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How Much Is Privacy Worth?

Wired has an article about the Supreme Court hearing on whether the federal government should reimburse individuals whose sensitive data was disclosed illegally, even if no harm can be proven.

At issue before the court, according to privacy advocates, is how valuable privacy really is. The Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits the government from disclosing private information intentionally, without the individual’s consent, and provides for a $1,000 minimum fine if the individual is “adversely affected.”

Marcia Hoffman, staff counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, argues that Congress preset the penalty precisely because it is so hard to put a price on an abstract concept such as privacy or to prove damages in absence of others’ misuse of that data.

If your Social Security number is disclosed, there is a real potential harm from identity theft.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argues that if the government has to pay damages in the case of any improper release of someone’s Social Security number, then reporters will not get information from the government that they need and are entitled to.

In the spirit of releasing as much information to the public as possible, we think he should have to prove damages. If every time you release information about an individual, you are going to be threatened with this $1,000-per-record fine, you are going to have agencies so nervous that they are going to err on the side of not turning over something. Government guardians of information are going to be way overly cautious.

And we would not want the government agencies nervous, would we…?

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