The historical context of the Privacy Act is important to an understanding of its remedial purposes: In 1974, Congress was concerned with curbing the illegal surveillance and investigation of individuals by federal agencies that had been exposed during the Watergate scandal; it was also concerned with potential abuses presented by the government's increasing use of computers to store and retrieve personal data by means of a universal identifier -- such as an individual's social security number.
The Privacy Act focuses on four basic policy objectives:
(1) To restrict disclosure of personally identifiable records maintained by agencies.
(2) To grant individuals increased rights of access to agency records maintained on themselves.
(3) To grant individuals the right to seek amendment of agency records maintained on themselves upon a showing that the records are not accurate, relevant, timely or complete.
(4) To establish a code of "fair information practices" which requires agencies to comply with statutory norms for collection, maintenance and dissemination of records.