USA: Privacy and Data Protection-related Laws

In the United States, there is no single, comprehensive federal law regulating the collection and use of personal data. However, each Congressional term brings proposals to standardise laws at a federal level. Instead, the US has a patchwork system of federal and state laws and regulations that can sometimes overlap, dovetail and contradict one another. In addition, there are many guidelines, developed by governmental agencies and industry groups that do not have the force of law, but are part of self-regulatory guidelines and frameworks that are considered “best practices”. These self-regulatory frameworks have accountability and enforcement components that are increasingly being used as a tool for enforcement by regulators.

These laws are based on Fair Information Practice that was first developed in the United States in the 1970s by the Department for Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). The basic principles of data protection are:

  • For all data collected there should be a stated purpose.
  • Information collected by an individual cannot be disclosed to other organizations or individuals unless specifically authorized by law or by consent of the individual
  • Records kept on an individual should be accurate and up to date
  • There should be mechanisms for individuals to review data about them, to ensure accuracy. This may include periodic reporting
  • Data should be deleted when it is no longer needed for the stated purpose
  • Transmission of personal information to locations where “equivalent” personal data protection cannot be assured is prohibited
  • Some data is too sensitive to be collected, unless there are extreme circumstances (e.g., sexual orientation, religion)

Some of the most prominent federal privacy laws related to internet and financial regulations include, without limitation, the following:

  • The Federal Trade Commission Act (15 U.S.C. §§41-58) (FTC Act) is a federal consumer protection law that prohibits unfair or deceptive practices and has been applied to offline and online privacy and data security policies. The FTC has brought many enforcement actions against companies failing to comply with posted privacy policies and for the unauthorised disclosure of personal data. The FTC is also the primary enforcer of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) (15 U.S.C. §§6501-6506), which applies to the online collection of information from children, and the Self-Regulatory Principles for Behavioural Advertising.
  • The Financial Services Modernization Act (Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLB)) (15 U.S.C. §§6801-6827) regulates the collection, use and disclosure of financial information. It can apply broadly to financial institutions such as banks, securities firms and insurance companies, and to other businesses that provide financial services and products. GLB limits the disclosure of non-public personal information, and in some cases requires financial institutions to provide notice of their privacy practices and an opportunity for data subjects to opt out of having their information shared. In addition, there are several Privacy Rules promulgated by national banking agencies and the Safeguards Rule, Disposal Rule, and Red Flags Rule issued by the FTC that relate to the protection and disposal of financial data.
  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (18 U.S.C. §2510) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 U.S.C. §1030) regulate the interception of electronic communications and computer tampering, respectively. A class action complaint filed in late 2008 alleged that internet service providers (ISPs) and a targeted advertising company violated these statutes by intercepting data sent between individuals’ computers and ISP servers (known as deep packet inspection). This is the same practice engaged in by Phorm in the UK and several UK telecommunications companies that resulted in an investigation by the European Commission.


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