FOI and Privacy
What about my right to privacy?
But shouldn’t the government protect my privacy?
So, if I want to find out information about my neighbor, all I have to do is ask?
If FOI is such a good idea, why do the media do so many scary stories about too much information being available?
What about my right to privacy?
First, the right to privacy generally refers to activities in your private life – your identity, your home, your family, your medical history, your employment history, your financial decisions, your movements, your religion, your beliefs, your vices.
Second, in a more practical way, the right to privacy means the right to decide with whom you share your personal information. Even so, we don’t always get to decide who sees our information
America is considered an “open” society, in which we conduct most of our business in public. We waive our right to privacy regularly by providing personal information, or at least access to it, to people we don’t know. Consider the following:
Most of us have our address and telephone number listed in the
If you write a check at a store and a clerk asks to see your
driver’s license, you voluntarily show it.
If you apply for a loan or a home mortgage, you have to provide
quite a bit of personal financial information.
Private businesses collect a great deal of information on your
spending habits. Every time you use a credit card you create a
record that may be shared with people other than the store and
your bank. Some businesses ask for information such as your
address or home phone number even on cash purchases,
ostensibly for their “customer database” or to qualify you for
special services. (It may also qualify you to receive unsolicited
material from that business or a related company.)
Even something as seemingly innocuous as a magazine
subscription or a product warranty card asks for personal
information and, once you provide it, you don’t know who will see
it or how they will use it.
But shouldn’t the government
protect my privacy?
In many cases, the government does just that. For instance, your individual income tax returns are not available to other people. The federal government mandates that your medical and employment records not be shared with people other than those authorized to see them. The Freedom of Information Act and the federal Privacy Act protect individual privacy, as do state open records laws.
Admittedly, the government may take an interest in aspects of your life you would consider private, but it may do so only for good cause. For that information to become publicly available may take extraordinary circumstances – a court trial, for instance.
So, if Iwant to find out information
about my neighbor, all I have to do is ask?
It may not be quite that simple. You had better have a good idea what you’re after before you go looking for information. You won’t get anywhere just walking into City Hall or your state Capitol and asking for “all you have on Robert Jones.”
For instance, if you want to check on your neighbor’s driving record, you should make sure you can clearly identify that person.
Probably the most important single law protecting individual privacy is the federal Privacy Act of 1974. This law (5 U.S.C. § 552A) sets forth the rules under which the federal government’s executive branch collects, manages and shares information about individual Americans in records “systems.” The “systems” definition is a key element of the Privacy Act. Here’s how a Tennessee legal site’s guide to the Privacy Act describes it:
A record contains individually identifiable information, including
but not limited to information about education, financial transactions, medical history, criminal history, or employment history. A “system of records” is a group of records from which information is actually retrieved by name, Social Security number, or other identifying symbol assigned to an individual.
Some personal information is not kept in a system of records. This information is not subject to the provisions of the Privacy Act, although access may be requested under the FOIA. Most personal information in government files is subject to the Privacy Act.
Simply put, the Privacy Act requires the federal government to provide information
about its records systems and to allow an individual to have access to his or
her own personal information and to correct any erroneous information in government
The law also prohibits federal executive branch agencies from sharing a citizen’s personal information with other agencies or with people outside of government unless the request meets certain criteria. And it provides penalties for violations.
To read the Privacy Act in its entirety, visit the federal Department of Justice.
If FOI is such a good idea, why do the
media do so many scary stories about too much information being available?
Let’s face it – the media sometimes do stories because they can get people’s attention. In today’s world, where safety and security are not guaranteed, people understandably may be nervous about who has access to sensitive information. Fear can be a powerful motivator.
We don’t want “the bad guys” getting their hands on information they can use to do us harm, whether it’s national security secrets or our personal identity or finances.
The stories that often do the most damage are those that take an individual case and ask, “Could this happen to you?”
While these kinds of stories can be compelling, they may have nothing to do with government-held information. Chances are, the criminal used information easily found in the private sector.
To the frustration of knowledgeable FOI advocates, some of those stories have become rallying cries for more restrictions on government records in the name of protecting individual privacy.
Unfortunately, the effect of those stories is to focus almost exclusively on the plight of the individual without examining the benefits of keeping certain kinds of information available to the public.