Protecting Your Privacy: An Overview

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Maintaining your privacy can feel hopeless, but there are steps you can take and resources to help.

These days, when apps on our smartphones collect information about everything we’re doing, and even governments and big corporations have trouble protecting their data, ordinary people can feel like it’s hopeless to maintain any semblance of privacy. But there are steps you can take, resources to help, and—depending on the context—some legal protections.

Privacy is a complicated subject, and there’s no single, nationwide standard for privacy rights. While the Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect us from unreasonable search and seizure, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t explicitly state that citizens have a right to privacy. On the other hand, some U.S. Supreme Court decisions have found implicit constitutional privacy rights in certain arenas (for instance, when the court struck down laws criminalizing abortion or sodomy). Also, some state constitutions have privacy protections that are broader than federal law. Mostly, however, the legal safeguards for privacy come from federal and state statutes and court decisions.

Read below for an overview of privacy law in some specific domains of life. For information on other areas, see our articles on online privacy and court records.

Privacy in the Workplace

The legal rules on privacy in the workplace are evolving, and they can differ from state to state. But one general principle is that an employer has the right to monitor and read messages sent on its own email system. The rules aren’t as clear where the employee uses the employer’s equipment to access personal email or to send and receive personal texts. In one case about text messages, though, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a public employee didn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy for messages he sent on an employer-provided pager.

Federal law requires employers to keep certain personnel records confidential—including anything containing medical information. Some states have laws prohibiting surveillance equipment in areas where employees expect privacy, like restrooms. And a few states prohibit employers from asking employees or applicants for the passwords to their social media accounts.

(For much more, see this center on different aspects of workplace privacy, including electronic monitoring, drug testing, and surveillance.)

Privacy in Your Rental Home

If you’re a renter, the extent of your right to privacy in your home depends in part on where you live. Many states have laws that spell out when and why a landlord can enter a tenant’s rental unit. These laws tend to specify whether landlords have to give advance notice in order to enter. In some states, any privacy rights for tenants come from court decisions.

(See this section on tenant privacy and safety for detail on these rules and others.)

Privacy of Medical Records

Medical providers and insurers clearly need access to medical records, but most people expect that their health information to otherwise be confidential. A critical federal law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), allows you to:

  • find out who has seen this information
  • ask your health provider not to share it with certain people, groups, or companies
  • get a copy of your own records, and
  • file a complaint if you think someone has violated the law.

(For more on what HIPAA allows and protects, see this article on access to medical records and the federal government's website on HIPAA )

Most states have their own laws governing medical records. In some of those states, the confidentiality requirements are stricter than under federal law.

Privacy of School Records

Parents are right to be concerned about the privacy of their children’s school records. These documents can contain sensitive information about students and even their families.

Federal laws, especially the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), provide some protection for student records. FERPA limits who can see this information and prohibits officials and agencies from sharing the records with others unless the parents have consented. The law also allows parents to review their children’s records and request that the school correct any inaccuracies. Students who are over 18 or attending post-secondary school have these same rights.

FERPA has some major weaknesses, however. Parents can’t sue schools for violating the law, and the complaint process can be difficult. Also, school systems aren’t required to adopt procedures to keep education records safe from people like hackers. (For more information, see the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse fact sheet on privacy in education.) In addition to FERPA and other federal laws affecting education records, many states and local jurisdictions have adopted statutes, regulations, and policies to protect the privacy of student records.

Privacy of Financial and Consumer Records

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is a federal law intended to protect the privacy and accuracy of your credit information. The law limits access to this information but has exceptions for matters like credit decisions and rental background checks.

Under the law, consumers have the right to copies of their credit reports and credit scores. If they notify the credit reporting agencies about any inaccurate information in their files, the agencies must correct or delete that information. The law also prohibits agencies from sharing your credit information with employers unless you agree. It additionally requires creditors to respond to reports of identity theft.

It’s a good idea to get copies of your credit reports regularly and check for any problems. For guidance, see our articles on the FCRA and how to correct errors on your credit report.

Federal regulations also require all financial institutions—including retailers that extend credit, debt collectors, insurance companies, and mortgage brokers—to:

  • take certain steps to protect consumers’ personal information
  • provide notice of their privacy policies, and
  • allow consumers to opt out of having their information shared with third parties like other businesses.

As in the other areas we’ve discussed here, many states have their own laws regarding the confidentiality of financial and consumer records. Any of those local laws will supersede the federal privacy rule if they give consumers great protection.

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