GAO says agencies protect personal data

Federal agencies that collect personal information from the public usually take the right steps to protect privacy, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

From March 2001 to July this year, GAO looked at how four agencies-the Agriculture, Education, Labor and State departments-gather and maintain the personal data used to determine whether individuals are eligible for government benefit programs such as Medicare and federal student loans.

The agencies collect a broad range of personal information, including names, Social Security numbers, driver's license identification numbers and education. Though they share private data with other federal offices, such as the IRS, and some state officials, the agencies in the study ensured the information remained secure, according to GAO.

"The agencies generally complied with the key requirements and guidance pertaining to information collection, privacy, security and records management," the report (GAO-02-1058) said.

Under the 1974 Privacy Act, the 1987 Computer Security Act and the 2000 Government Information Security Reform Act, agencies are required to identify systems containing confidential information, limit access to sensitive data and ensure that private data is stored in a secure location. Agencies also have to make certain the information is reliable and not misused.

According to GAO, Agriculture, Education, Labor and State all established a clearance process for employees designated to handle the information, limited access to sensitive information, checked to make sure their computer systems were protected from hackers and created procedures for archiving personal data in safe locations.

GAO pointed out several minor breaches of privacy policy, including forms that were out-of-date, inaccurate or lacking adequate privacy notices. For instance, the privacy notice on one Labor Department form failed to give individuals "critical information about their rights in filling out the form," leaving out a description of how the department would use the requested information. Labor has since posted an up-to-date form with an appropriate privacy statement

Officials from the four agencies agreed with GAO's findings.

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