Nature to Need StoriesThere are some caveats, though. Much of the information in question is personal data, and there are real privacy concerns when particulars about people are combined across federal agencies. That could lead to secretive profiling and unfair and unaccountable decision-making. In fact, a proposal in the mid-1960s to create a national data center—also to ensure better policy-making by the federal government—produced such a backlash that Congress enacted comprehensive legislation to limit federal agencies’ ability to gather and collect personal information.
In passing the 1974 Privacy Act Congress recognized that statistical data, such as the U.S. census, can help inform government policy while minimizing privacy risks. And so, the same law that limits use of personal data recognizes the critical role of statistical information to promote smart government.
lot of the data collected by federal agencies does not threaten privacy at all. Consider the important work of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its recent tracking of hurricanes across the Atlantic Ocean. Meteorological data is becoming increasingly important as the severity of storms increases. State and local officials need the best information possible to make difficult decisions about how to deploy resources and when to evacuate residents of coastal communities. Our ability to forecast storms has improved dramatically from 1900, when a hurricane—which still ranks as the most deadly natural disaster in our nation’s history—took the lives of approximately 10,000 people in Galveston, Texas. The reason for the high death toll was the lack of accurate forecasting and therefore the lack of preparation. But there is more to do.