Over the years there has been a lot of money spent on research. Much of this money has
been spent by you and me, the Taxpayers. The product of all of this work exists somewhere,
and, it is owned, in many cases, by the Taxpayers. The task of encouraging, or in some
cases forcing a bureaucrat to allow the people who paid for the research to view it, is
more often than not, a task that is perfected by a skilled and persistent person using the
Information Act (FOIA) and the Privacy Act.
This page is a brief primer on
the use of these little understood laws. You may not need a complete understanding of the
complexities of these two laws in order to use them. If you feel that you need more
information than we have provided here, consider visiting your closest law library to read
the full texts of these laws, their interpretations, and case law. To view the text of
these laws, without comments, use the links in the following paragraphs.
How are the two laws
In brief, the Freedom of
Information Act and the Electronic
Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 offer the information seeker a chance to
obtain a copy of a record maintained by any Federal agency, a record that could be
obtained by any other member of the public making a similar request, and, therefore, a
record that does not contain any personally identifiable information (information on
specific individuals. In general, this law is used to request copies of reports or other
documents on specific matters or for compilations of records on a particular subject.
In contrast, the Privacy Act
offers a chance to request, review, and to ask for corrections in Federal records that are
about you. Others could ask for these records, but only the subject individual can expect
to obtain records. You may not legally request someone elses personally identifiable
material. This act is commonly used by people who are curious about the records that
various Federal law enforcement agencies may have, that pertain specifically to them.
How are these laws
Both laws afford an applicant
the opportunity request records maintained by the Executive Branch of the Federal
Government only. In other words, records held by departments or independent agencies are
covered by the laws, but not Congressional or court records. Records of States, which may
have their own similarly-named laws, are not covered under these acts. Records of private
entities are also not available, although some of their records may be covered by other
Federal and State statutes.
Are you ready to get
Before filing a request under
either law, you must first identify the agency that is most likely to have the desired
material. There is no central point to which these requests may be addressed. This is
perhaps the most important issue, and the one for which there is no easy answer.
If you are not sure, and even
the experts work on many cases for years, there is some help available from a good
reference librarian. The better, though the more frustrating, method is to call the
Federal Consumer Information Center, National Contact Center. You can call 1-800-688-9889
toll-free, or TDD/TTY users can call toll-free 1-800-326-2996.
If you are requesting records
that may be available under the FOIA, you should first talk to the agency that you believe
has the material. In many cases, the agencies make the information available free of
charge or sell it through the Government Printing Office, the National Technical
Information Service, or private sources. There may be some help from the Government
Publications office. If the desired material is not to be sold, some agencies have no
problem agreeing to give you the desired material for free. Other agencies may insist that
you must file a request through the agencys FOIA office in order for you them to
grant access to a document or to create a file for you.
If you are requesting a file
under the Privacy Act, you will nearly always have to make a request in writing and may
have to provide additional proof of identity. This kind of procedure is designed to
protect you from having personal information disclosed to anyone else.
Is there any more
informational material available?
The General Services
Administration and the Department of Justice jointly publish "Your Right to Federal
Records." You may request a paper copy by calling the National Contact Center of the
Federal Consumer Information Center, at 1-800-688-9889 toll-free, or TDD/TTY users
can call toll-free1-800-326-2996. You may view and/or download the guidelines by visiting
the Federal Consumer Information
Center web site. Both a text
version and an HTML version are available.
Information Locator System (GILS) - An index of major HHS information systems. A
description of each system is an integral part of GILS.
Printing Office - GPO Access Multi-Database Search.
HHS Privacy Act
Systems Notices - A link to the National Archives and Records Administration's
compilation of government Privacy Act Issuances, which contains descriptions of Federal
agency systems of records maintained on individuals and rules agencies follow to assist
individuals who request information about their records.