The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966 and the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 allow you to obtain a copy of a record that has been maintained by a federal agency. These records do not contain any information on individuals and can be obtained by any member of the public making a request. This law is usually used to request copies of reports on specific matters or compilations of records on particular subjects.
Unlike the Freedom of Information Act, the Privacy Act of 1974 does not let you request just any records. Rather, the Privacy Act allows you to only request, review, and ask for corrections in federal records that are specifically about you. No one else may request these records, and you may not request records about someone else. People usually use this act to see what records federal agencies may have on them.
Both laws give you the opportunity to request records maintained by the federal executive branch. This does not cover congressional, judicial, state, or private entities’ records. You must first identify the agency most likely to have the material you are looking for before filing a request:
- FOIA – If requesting a record under FOIA, you should first talk to the agency that you believe has the material. Frequently, the agency will make the information available free of charge or sell it to you without having to invoke your right under the Freedom of Information Act. Some agencies may require that you file a request through the agency’s FOIA office.
- Privacy Act – If requesting a record under the Privacy Act, you must usually make a written request and provide additional proof of identity.
The Freedom of Information Act provides exceptions for certain records that prevent them from being accessed by the public. These exceptions include:
- Classified national defense and foreign relations information
- Internal agency rules and practices
- Information that is prohibited from disclosure by another law
- Trade secrets and other confidential business information
- Inter-agency or intra-agency communications that are protected by legal privileges
- Information involving matters of personal privacy
- Certain information compiled for law enforcement purposes
- Information relating to the supervision of financial institutions
- Geological information on wells
The Privacy Act also provides exceptions for certain records, including:
- Classified information on national security
- Records concerning criminal investigations
- Information that would identify a confidential source
A government lawyer may be able to help you decide which agency would most likely have the record you are seeking to obtain. A lawyer can also help you determine under which law your request falls, and help guide you through the process of uncovering the information.