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Confidentiality is simply a requirement that particular information not be disclosed. Confidentiality protects information about an individual that is held by another person or entity, such as a school (either public or private), a business (e.g., medical, financial), or a public agency, from disclosure without the person’s consent. Confidentiality arises either through professional ethics, business practices, or by statute. While some of the constraints on the release of personal information are to prevent the misappropriation of information that could cause harm to person, property, or reputation, a significant underlying principle for confidentiality is individual autonomy and the right to control the dissemination of personal information.

Public agencies that hold information about individuals are constrained by another consideration: the open conduct of governmental business. As a matter of policy in a democratic government, the public has the right to information about how the government conducts its business. The federal government and all 50 states have "freedom of information" laws, as do many other countries. These laws require that all public agencies provide access to their records at little or no cost to the public. They also generally include an open meetings provision, which requires that government meetings be open to the public.

The principles of individual privacy and open government clash when a public agency holds personal information about those it serves. While the presumption is for openness, there are numerous exceptions to public access, based largely on the need to ensure the confidentiality of personally identifying information maintained by government agencies. For more information on the limitations of public disclosure of government records, see The Freedom of Information Act.

Another aspect of confidentiality is that of privilege, which protects communications within certain relationships. Historically, privileges developed as evidentiary rules that limited what information could be compelled through testimony. "Evidentiary privileges exist for the protection of interests and relationships which, rightly or wrongly, are regarded as of sufficient social importance to justify some sacrifice of availability of evidence relevant to the administration of justice."1 They not only protect an individual from the disclosure of personal information, but also protect the professional from charges of contempt or perjury, and possible jail time, for refusing to testify truthfully as to the communications. See Privileged Communications.



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