Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 (VPPA)

The Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 (Public Law 100-618) limits the disclosure of personally identifiable information regarding video rentals. It provides one of the strongest consumer privacy protections in federal law -- stronger, for example, than those for health records under HIPAA. The law was passed largely in reaction to the disclosure of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork's video rental records by a newspaper during confirmation hearings.

VPPA defines "personally identifiably information" as that which "identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific video materials or services from a video tape service provider." A "video tape service provider" is "any person, engaged in the business, in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, of rental, sale or delivery of prerecorded video cassette tapes or similar audiovisual materials."

Video tape service providers may disclose personally identifiable information only:

  • to the consumer him- or herself;
  • to any other person, with the written consent of the consumer;
  • to any other person, if the disclosure is simply of names and addresses, and
    • the consumer has been provided with an opportunity to opt-out; and
    • the disclosure does not identify title, description or subject matter (though subject matter may be disclosed if "for the exclusive use of marketing goods and services to the consumer");
  • to any other person, if in the ordinary course of business;
  • to a law enforcement agency, pursuant to a federal or state warrant, a grand jury subpoena, or a court order, provided that
    • the consumer is provided with prior notice, and
    • there is a showing of probable cause to believe that the records are relevant to a legitimate law enforcement enquiry;


  • pursuant to a court order in a civil proceeding, upon showing of a compelling need, provided
    • the consumer is given reasonable notice; and
    • afforded the opportunity to contest the request.

VPPA permits any person aggrieved by a violation of its disclosure rules to bring a civil action for damages in a federal court, provided this is done within two years of the alleged violation.

It would appear from the language of the VPPA that it also applies to DVDs and video games rented from the same sorts of provider, but no court cases have tested this supposition to date. (Disclosures related to video-on-demand services from a cable television provider are covered by another law.)

Uncertainty also attends the interaction of the VPPA's prior notice and probable cause requirements with the recently-passed USA Patriot Act, which allows "sneak-and-peak" (no-notice) warrants in many cases, and also lowers the general standard for warrants from probable cause to "in the course of an ongoing investigation."

States are not preempted from passing video privacy protections greater than those afforded by VPPA, and many have done so in the intervening years.

See also:


   © 2002-2006 Contributing authors and University of Miami School of Medicine