Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Guide to U.S. Data Privacy Laws

Consider how much data you leave behind every day. The digital world can capture every button you press, transaction you make, and message you send. It has never been easier to track someone's activities — or violate their privacy.

Unlike the European Union, which has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the United States has no overall data privacy protection law. Instead, the U.S. has a patchwork of protected areas. Some of these laws only apply to one specific industry.

This article will focus on data privacy laws and protections at the federal level. It's important to remember that other protections exist in state laws.

Data Breaches Threaten Consumers

In 2017, hackers stole over half of all Americans' names, addresses, and Social Security numbers. They hacked the computer system of credit reporting giant Equifax. Equifax failed to update its computer security systems and stored usernames and passwords in unencrypted files.

Every day, there seems to be yet another data breach. What laws, if any, exist to protect Americans?

The federal government has often been more concerned about its own data misuse than data breaches from private companies. But the federal government has also passed some data protection laws to regulate private companies.

The Federal Trade Commission Act

Privacy laws can only protect you if the government adequately enforces them. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides consumers with the most overall data protection.

The FTC has general authority as a federal agency, meaning it doesn't rely solely on a data privacy law. Its authority comes from the Federal Trade Commission Act. The FTC Act authorizes it to use many methods to prevent unfair or deceptive trade practices.

How Does the FTC Regulate Data Privacy?

The FTC's ability to reach agreements with private companies is its chief weapon in combating privacy issues. These agreements regulate the use of the data companies collect. The FTC can also take enforcement actions if a company violates its agreement.

For example, in 2011, it agreed with Facebook to create a compliance plan and formalize privacy practices. The FTC hoped that other internet companies would model their privacy and data collection policies on the agreement reached with Facebook.

The FTC investigates and prosecutes companies for issues such as:

  • Deceptive data collection
  • Misuse of consumer data
  • Other violations of improper internet practices

One of the FTC's primary functions is to prevent identity theft. It built a complaint resource to help consumers with stolen identities. This report gathers information and then shares it with law enforcement.

Privacy from Government Data Collection

The Privacy Act of 1974 protects U.S. citizens from the misuse of their data by the federal government. It governs federal agencies' collection, maintenance, and use of information about people. This law doesn't apply to private companies or state government agencies.

This law restricts how federal agencies use personally identifiable records. You have the right to access your federal record. You can also request to change the data if it isn't "accurate, relevant, timely, or complete."

Privacy for Children Online

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) addresses data for minors under 13. It prohibits a website or online service provider directed at children from collecting personally identifiable information.

Yet, a business can collect this data if it gives notice of what information it will collect and how it will use it. COPPA also requires verifiable parental consent for any data collection.

Privacy for Your Health Information

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) provides robust privacy regulations for your medical data.

This law regulates the use and disclosure of a person's health information, including details like:

  • Your diagnoses
  • Your treatment plans and medications
  • Your medical billing history and payment information
  • Your personal data, such as your address and birthdate

Health providers can face civil and criminal penalties for failing to follow the privacy rule requirements of HIPAA.

Credit Reporting Privacy

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) protects your financial data. It regulates consumer reporting agencies like Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian.

The FCRA requires agencies to address data security in specific ways, such as:

  • Notifying you when they disclose your credit report
  • Placing fraud alerts for suspicious credit activity
  • Providing free access to credit reports following a fraud alert

The act is extensive and gives many consumer rights. It restricts the disclosure of credit reports and other consumer reports. It works in conjunction with HIPAA to also protect medical information.

Financial Data Collection Privacy

The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) also protects your private financial information. The GLBA primarily regulates financial institutions. Banks and financial businesses must explain how they collect and use your information.

This law aims to ensure transparency and privacy when you use financial services, such as:

  • Online banking
  • Loan applications
  • Insurance policies
  • Investment services and investing advice
  • Money transfers
  • Online payment processing, such as online shopping checkouts

These services often need sensitive data like your financial account numbers and personal details about your identity. Before using a financial service, you should understand what details it will gather and whether it will share them with third parties.

Safeguards Against Marketing Spam

In the early 2000s, consumers fought a barrage of unwanted email advertisements. Many of these emails contained explicit sexual content. Congress passed the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM Act) to reduce these emails.

CAN-SPAM established requirements for sending unsolicited commercial email. The law also regulates other fraudulent activities associated with electronic mail. Unfortunately, online spam continues to take advantage of consumers' data.

Privacy Against Digital Spying

In the days of telephones and telegraphs, the U.S. had a wiretap law. It banned eavesdropping and recording conversations through those methods.

Later, lawmakers expanded that law to address modern wireless communication. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) protects "oral, wire, and electronic communications."

ECPA can prohibit intercepting messages in forms such as:

  • Phone conversations, including landline and mobile phones
  • Voicemail and private audio memos
  • Email conversations
  • Private direct messages on social media
  • Text messages
  • Private video calls

There are limits to how the ECPA can protect your communications. There are exemptions for law enforcement and publicly available communications. Granting a person or company permission to intercept your message also creates an exception to this law.

Anti-Hacking Legal Protection

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act combats a hacker's ability to control government and private computers. This law addresses hacking and data theft by illegally accessing computers and taking computerized data. Its protection extends to mobile devices like laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

Under this law, merely accessing a computer without authorization is illegal. Even if a hacker doesn't steal data or information, breaking into it is a crime.

Keeping Educational Records Private

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects student records. FERPA controls parents' and students' access to them. The act gives you the right to correct inaccurate information in your record and control who can view it.

This law ensures that schools keep student information confidential by taking proper data security measures. Under FERPA, schools must ensure their systems, software, and faculty training meet basic standards to protect student privacy. This protection is especially a concern as schooling adapts to changing technology and a higher demand for online coursework.

State-Level Consumer Privacy Protections

Federal laws offer a basic framework for consumer privacy. Yet, you may also have more protections under U.S. state law.

See examples of these state data privacy laws below:

  • The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and its amendment, the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA)
  • The Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act (VCDPA)
  • The Colorado Privacy Act (CPA)
  • The Utah Consumer Privacy Act (UCPA)
  • The Connecticut Data Privacy Act (CDPA)
  • The Texas Data Privacy and Security Act (TDPSA)
  • The Florida Digital Bill of Rights (FDBR)
  • The New York Personal Privacy Protection Law (PPPL)
  • The Oregon Consumer Privacy Act (OCPA)

Some states have far more comprehensive data privacy laws than others. For example, the CCPA gives California residents a private right of action (the right to sue) after a data breach.

Your rights can vary greatly. An attorney who practices law in your state can help you understand the specific protections that apply to you. State attorneys general and related agencies typically manage consumer complaints under these laws.

Watch for Consumer Privacy Law Developments

New technology drives many data privacy concerns. Consumers face new and challenging privacy risks with the proliferation of tech such as biometric scanners and artificial intelligence (AI). Companies and organizations — including the government — also face new cybersecurity threats.

In response, privacy legislation is evolving rapidly across the country. Many of the state laws listed above went into effect as recently as 2023 and 2024. Federal privacy law has been a growing focus as this patchwork of state laws continues to take shape.

Unfortunately, the law has struggled to keep pace with technological advancements. Legislators and agencies like the FTC will face complex questions about how to regulate this technology effectively. Their answers can affect your future legal rights.

Learn About Your Rights With a Data Privacy Lawyer

The federal government tries to prevent data theft through these laws. But it's primarily up to you to protect your data before a breach happens.

If you have concerns about identity theft or stolen online data, a skilled attorney can answer questions and help you assert your rights. Contact an experienced consumer protection attorney in your area today to learn more.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified consumer attorney to assist with the hazards and stress accompanying identity theft and online scams.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options