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What Are Your Legal Rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Privacy?

Maybe we were naïve. Recent revelations about government spying at home opened our eyes to the feds’ now-notorious domestic surveillance programs. Some Americans may suddenly feel a bit paranoid about the government butting into their private affairs.

Still, law-respecting folks may rest assured that no one on any federal government payroll routinely watches or collects personal information about them—except possibly employees or contractors of the FBI, DHS, DOD, NSA, CIA and some other arms of Uncle Peeping Sam we may never hear about.

So what exactly are your privacy rights when it comes to the U.S. government? When may federal agents seek, store or reveal your personal information? Let’s pry open some secrets of individual privacy rights in a nation under surveillance.

What’s in the Constitution?

Although the magic word privacy appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution, it’s no secret—as the Supreme Court has affirmed—that you have a fundamental right to be left alone by the feds.

Protection against unwelcome snooping and spying by the government is part of the package of liberties enshrined in the Constitution. To uncover the Constitutional underpinnings of individual privacy in the Bill of Rights, take a peek at the Fourth Amendment’s golden rule against unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as rights under the First (freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly), Third (no quartering of troops), Fifth (no self-incrimination) along with the Ninth (the catch-all that preserves rights not specifically named in the Constitution) and Fourteenth Amendments (due process, equal protection).

Congress has embraced privacy principles in statutes like the Privacy Act of 1974, which safeguards personal information contained in records that the government collects and uses. With certain exceptions, these agencies cannot disclose your records without your written consent. If you’re curious what the feds have on you, feel free to send a Privacy Act Request to your favorite federal agency. You can even request corrections.

Along with the Privacy Act, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires the government to provide folks with access to most records and information kept by federal agencies. You have a right to know what’s in government records, and the materials you request under FOIA don’t even have to be about you personally.

When is government snooping allowed?

Sometimes your private life is the government’s business. If you’re a terrorist or crime suspect, expect more eyeballs on you than a hot reality show.

Government domestic surveillance programs, including the NSA’s secret data mining—along with the agency’s collection of phone and email metadata—may not be earning accolades from Miss Manners, but it’s no longer news: what you do on your phone, laptop or favorite websites may attract the attention of government agents on a mission to track and eliminate security threats.  Suddenly, it seems like nothing is off limits.

In the ongoing tug-of-war between national security and personal privacy, if the feds eavesdrop on you it’s not to praise your poetry or remind you to call your Mom or backup your data, as countess funny folks have tweeted. While the recent revelations have created controversy about the statutes like the USA PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—and about which government security programs are guilty of overstepping civil liberties, and when—government surveillance at home leaves many Americans feeling safer. But others, not so much. Some lawmakers want more privacy protection, transparency and accountability.

Meanwhile, privacy remains a moving target in a fast-changing digital world. Many privacy watchers want updated privacy laws that do a better job keeping pace with technology. Groups like the ACLU are calling for an investigation into the the extent of government spying.

Where are the spies?

For the public record, most of the government is not actually engaged in domestic spying. At least not directly. The extent of government intrusion or prying into your private life depends on the agency and its job:

Transportation Security Administration

Since 9/11, anyone who flies expects to get a bit personal with the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration. Although bearing the same middle name as the NSA, the TSA is on the prowl for dangerous objects, not info. Airport body scanners, the subjects of lawsuits as well as general public outrage, are less graphic now, revealing only outlines. You may still elect the patdown if you think that’s less icky. For rules about carry-on and checked bags, search and frisk the ever-changing rules regarding airport security procedures for travelers.  And if you have privacy concerns or questions, yell at the TSA’s privacy office.

United States Postal Service

After all the news about the government’s secret email metadata dragnet, you may feel more discreet sending a letter. The post office does not open or read the billions of pieces of mail it delivers annually. But the postal service does photograph and log all the envelopes. This mammoth task may help the FBI catch criminals who send ricin via the US mail, but may make you feel your personal correspondence is no more protected from government scrutiny on paper than in pixels. Ready to bring back the Pony Express?

Internal Revenue Service

Privacy for taxpayers is built into the IRS Code. Your federal tax returns are confidential, and may not be disclosed by the government other than under certain statutory exceptions. Of course, if you’re a billionaire or just any old politician running for high office, expect calls for the release of your taxpaying history.

Federal Courts

Don’t expect privacy in federal courts. While not all trials are as notorious as the day’s hottest murder cases covered gavel to gavel on cable news channels, court proceedings are generally open to the public. If you’re curious, you can usually find a seat in the courthouse. Court filings are also public, unless they’re sealed by a judge.

Federal websites

The .gov domain is a treasure trove of government information. Federal webmasters are required to post and maintain privacy policies. When you visit a website hosted by a federal department, office or program, check the site’s disclosure rules about data collection and other online privacy topics. For example, here are privacy disclosures from the National Weather Service, Interior Department,, Federal Election Commission and the White House. Government apps also contain disclosures about their privacy features.

Remember, obeying the law and having nothing to hide does not waive your right to privacy. Here at Rocket Lawyer we respect your right to life, liberty and pursuit of all the lawful things that bring you happiness.


  1. Paul Lee says:

    I think social media has changed the definition of “personal information”, and has blurred the lines of privacy and lawful surveillance, which makes this topic tricky. We now willingly give up our location, hometown, phone number, email address, even specific details about habits/tastes/preferences in our social media profiles… that kind of information is no longer private, and we’ve done it to ourselves. We’re still searching for the right balance of privacy and connectivity I suppose, we want to share more with each other, while still wanting to protect that information.

    • Laura Counts says:

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your comments! Those are all very good points. In many ways, we’ve become a sharing society.