Whether we want to or not, we now live in a world with unlimited access to information through seemingly endless means. From social media to twenty-four hour news cycles, no one seems to lead a “private” life.

Even though many of us intentionally reveal our private information by displaying our latest photos or clicking “yes” to share our information with marketers, we are forced to battle against cyber criminals and social ruin in the process. Yet the U.S. Constitution never mentions the word “privacy” despite our continuous repetition of the phrase my right to privacy.

The U.S. Supreme Court has clearly interpreted the law to include a right to privacy; particularly as it relates to government intrusion. Police need warrants supported by probable cause before they can enter a person’s home and state officials cannot force journalists to reveal their sources.

But what about protecting our privacy from predators online and overzealous businesses attempting to exploit us? While that question continues to be debated and slowly chiseled into law, there have been several statutes enacted to do just that. 

What are Some Federal Laws that Protect My Privacy?

There is not one single law that can protect your right to privacy. Instead, there are a series of laws that cover different aspects of privacy, for example:

  • The Privacy Act protects individuals’ records regarding personal identifying information such as your social security number and your name. This statute also establishes a code of fair practices regarding the collection, maintenance, use and dissemination of personal information that is stored or otherwise maintained by various federal agencies.
  • The Fair Credit Reporting Act governs credit reporting agencies and requires them to insure that the information they collect and reveal on individual’s credit reports is a fair and accurate summary of that individual’s credit history. By passing this law, the government is attempting to protect consumers from inaccurate or mistaken information being used against them.
  • The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act attempts to protect consumers from third-party debt collectors by prohibiting behaviors such as harassment, threats, and deception while attempting to collect from you.
  • The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires medical providers to protect your personal and medical information during and after treatment.
  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act protects your personal information from unlawful wiretapping or recording of information sent via electronically.
  • The Financial Modernization Act compels your credit card company, bank and any other financial institution you do business with to inform you of their privacy policies regarding the information they collect and use about you and your private information.
  • Parents are able to control the information that is collected about their minor children (under the age of 13) because of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

Do State Laws Protect My Privacy?

Yes, many states have passed legislation or created laws to protect you from misinformation about your records or to prevent others from obtaining your personal information unlawfully.

Some states like California go further than the federal Fair Debt Collections Act by regulating the practices of the original debt owner in an effort to protect consumers. At least ten states have included the right to privacy as a constitutional provision: Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Montana, South Carolina, and the state of Washington.

Do I Have a Right to Privacy During a Lawsuit?

That depends on the nature of the suit and who you are trying to keep your information private from. Many local jurisdictions protect the identity of children in custody battles or child abuse prosecutions by requiring such information to be shielded from public view. And many judges may issue a “gag rule” on the parties, witnesses and members of the press regarding what happens in court in a highly publicized case.

However, many people are concerned about the opposing party accessing their private information. In that case, it is very difficult to protect your personal information from the opposing party.

Even when you are not a party to a lawsuit, you may still be compelled by subpoena power of the courts to disclose personal information if it is related to a case in which you are a potential witness. In deciding whether to require such disclosures of private information, the courts are required to balance the state’s interest in obtaining the information and the individual’s right to privacy.

Even when such a balancing test favors disclosure, you may still be able to have certain details redacted or hidden from view such as account numbers or social security numbers when they may be part of a larger record.

If you are being compelled to disclose such information, you may be able to file a protective order to prevent the disclosure, request that the judge review the information in chambers first before the information is sent to the other party, and/or request the information disclosed be shielded from public view once disclosed to the requesting party.

How Can I Protect My Privacy Rights?

Many of the federal laws listed above have enforcement provisions. If you believe a person, company or agency has violated a federal law, you may be able to file a claim or at least report the violation in which the government may fine the wrongdoer.

Can a Lawyer Help Me Protect My Privacy?

Yes. If you are being compelled to provide private information involved in a court case, a government lawyer may be able to assist you with filing a protective order and other requests to protect your information from further disclosure.

A civil rights attorney may also be able to represent you in a claim against a person, company or agency that has violated state or federal privacy statutes.