Cato Journal

Cato Journal

Spring/Summer 2002


Principles for Protecting Privacy
By Fred H. Cate



The past five years have witnessed an explosion in legislation, regulation, and litigation designed to protect the privacy of personal information. Congress alone has adopted comprehensive federal financial privacy legislation, online privacy protection for children, and the first federal prohibition on access to historically open public records without individual "opt-in" consent, among other privacy laws. Rather than preventing harmful uses of personal information or invasions of privacy by the government, these laws grant individuals broad rights to control innocuous and even beneficial uses of information about them by the private sector.

At the state level, legislators have considered hundreds of their own privacy bills in the past two years alone. State attorneys general have initiated aggressive privacy investigations and litigation. State insurance commissioners have been busy trying to implement the insurance provisions of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999.

On the judicial side, the Supreme Court has decided two cases upholding privacy laws from constitutional attack, while at the same time holding that the First Amendment protected the broadcast of an illegally intercepted cellular telephone conversation. Federal appellate courts, meanwhile, have been busy alternately upholding and striking down privacy laws.

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