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 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. On the contrary, the Privacy Act of 1974 allows you 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 someone else's information. People usually use this act to see what records agencies may have on them.
How Do I Take Advantage of these Laws?
Both laws give you the opportunity to request records maintained by the Executive Branch (i.e. departments or independent agencies). This does not cover Congressional, court, 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 the FOIA, you should first talk to the agency you believe has the material. Many times, the agency will make the information available free of charge or sell it. 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.
What Information is Not Available under the FOIA?
The FOIA provides exceptions for certain records. These 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
What Information is Not Available under the Privacy Act?
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
Do I Need a Lawyer Experienced with these Laws?
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 decide under which law your request falls and may help guide you through the process of uncovering the information.