Legal concept similar to habeas corpus, defined as the right of an individual to control data kept on him/her by third parties. The phrase was apparently coined around 1970 by Alan Westin, professor of Public Law and Government at Columbia University but the concept's partial implementation dates back at least to the Federal Republic of Germany's post-war constitution of 1949.

Habeas data is an important part of data privacy legislation in the European Union and in Latin American countries, reflecting the concern of the general public with privacy issues. The main reason people in these countries are more aware of privacy issues than people in the United States or elsewhere is their more recent experience with totalitarian and oppressive regimes which collected and stored data on citizens with the purpose of persecuting their opponents. Legislation is stricter in countries ruled by people who were among those persecuted and which most recently were ruled by dictators or juntas such as Spain, Portugal, Greece and Argentina, all of which endured such regimes into the 1970s and 1980s. In Argentina the law itself, enacted 2000-10-31 is the first one to be called "habeas data" but similar proposals elsewhere have followed suit.

While European countries use mostly legislation to regulate data protection, South American countries, generally being less confident of the entrenchment of democractic principles of government and historically more prone to political instability, have been more inclined to add habeas data clauses to their constitution as a more rigid means of ensuring protection. Starting with Brazil in 1988 many Latin American countries that were rewriting their constitutions in the 1990s took the opportunity to go a step further than the Europeans, who are less inclined towards constitutional revisions.

In 2001, it remains to be seen whether these legal, theoretical safeguards will have a practical impact on data protection and processing. The fact that data are easy to conceal and their misuse or illicit collection may be hard to prove could ultimately render habeas data ineffective in practice and good for no more than reducing junk mail.

Direct Marketing Association
Andres Guadamuz, Habeas Data: The Latin-American Response to Data Protection; published in the Journal of Information, Law and Technology, 06/2000.
National Geographic, 11/1970

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