Reference Guide / Guidance and Procedures

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and its amendments, plus the Privacy Act of 1974 enable individual examination of records held by the executive branch of government and its agencies including information kept on individual citizens and resident aliens.

What Does The Privacy Act Do?

The Privacy Act protects the individual right to access personal information kept on file by the federal government, the right to make appropriate corrections, and the right to sue if anyone else is given access to that information. Individuals regularly provide personal data through applications for grants, loans, Medicare, and Social Security. Government employment and military service also result in permanent records. A FOIA or Privacy Act Officer can confirm the existence of such records but a request may require identification. The Office of the Federal Register maintains listings of existing government record systems and the Privacy Act Issuances Compilation as well as the full Privacy Act can be examined at many large libraries.

How Does The Privacy Act Help?

The Privacy Act limits the information that individuals can obtain about each other and restricts that information to what is accessible by name, SS# or other personal ID. The Act exempts records that could jeopardize certain investigations or the security of the United States and those containing information provided by individuals under the promise of confidentiality. FOIA exempts records of the U.S. Congress and the courts, those kept by states and other municipalities, communications within and between federal agencies, records related to the employee policies and procedures of those agencies; and information usually considered private such as medical and personnel records (FOIA Exemption 6).

What Information Is Protected?

Business records normally exempted from public examination include confidential data such as details of patented products and processes, records related to the administration of banks and other financial organizations, and geological data supporting oil production. Private entities do not have to provide direct access to their records but information already provided to the federal government may be requested via FOIA. Other records are classified to protect disclosure from all but the most urgent requests: those maintained by duly established law enforcement organizations, those related to the defense of the United States and its dealings with foreign governments, and records protected by existing statutes.

What Is The Process?

To gain access to records through FOIA. it is essential to identify the agency which is likely to have them and contact that agency’s FOIA Officer. A records search may not be successful if it is directed to the wrong agency or lacks an accurate description of the materials sought. Costs associated with an individual request are usually reasonable but a waiver of those fees can be requested. Most federal agencies will accept formal requests by phone, fax, mail, or in person, with the specifics available on their websites. Records can be examined in person if noted in the formal request — always keep a copy of the request.

Although a records search may turn up exempted documents, that concern should not prevent a request. Federal agencies have some power to decide whether or not to grant a records request. A thoughtful explanation of the reasons behind a request may be all that is needed to grant it. Time frames for the fulfillment of requests, receipt of written denials, and the filing of appeals, differ between agencies and between the stated guidelines of FOIA and the Privacy Act, but appeals are possible on many levels.

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