| Access to archival records: A review of current issues: A RAMP study |
|1. Factors influencing the consultation and dissemination of archival information|
1.5 An unexpected consequence of increasing access rights has been the emerging conflict between principles of open access to information and the protection of personal privacy. Often, rights of access imply intrusions into the personal lives of individuals. This is most common where personal and other information has not been segregated by record creators. These two principles must be balanced to ensure that individuals are not unjustly harmed by disclosure of information and that their rights to privacy are maintained.
1.6 In recent years, this issue has become prominent as records containing extensive personal information have been made public. In many cases, the existence of these records was never intended to be known since they were never meant to be released. A notable example of this is the records of the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic's secret police. Over many years, this agency maintained extensive records on its own citizens. Information about individuals - often provided by friends and family - was collected. The records were then used to monitor the activities of perceived enemies of the government." When the regime collapsed, the records were made available to the individuals who were the subjects of such files. As a result, some East Germans learned first hand about the state's intrusions into their lives, as well as about the role played by some family members and close friends. This situation caused much personal turmoil for the individuals who were the subject of the files, as well as for those who had provided information at a time when such an action was condoned and even encouraged by governing authorities.
1.7 A complicating factor to the upholding of privacy rights are the possibilities for intrusion into individuals' private lives made possible by the manipulation of technology. Capabilities for data-matching in automated systems have resulted in the development, in some countries, of regulations to protect the use and dissemination of personal information and, especially, common personal identifiers or numbers. The European Community has made major strides in this field with the planned adoption of a Directive on Data Protection. These guidelines are intended to provide a common level of data protection among members of the European Community. Given the Community's influence internationally, the guidelines are expected to have a significant impact on the evolution of privacy policies worldwide.
1.8 Currently, many nations are attempting to provide maximum protection of personal information through various initiatives. The concept of the individual's right of ownership over his/her own personal information wherever it is located - is gaining prominence. The extent to which this principle will be respected, however, is hard to predict. In some countries, for instance, studies have been undertaken to develop electronic "smart cards" containing personal data which would be held by individuals and made available to governments only when transactions occur. Such an instrument would impose greater limitations on the use of personal information by governments as, it is estimated, there would only be one major personal database to which officials could gain access but under strict controls. Concurrently, if kept, this database would provide a valuable archival record of government-citizen interaction.