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Overview of the Freedeom of Information Act and Privacy Act

Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) establishes a presumption that records in the possession of agencies and departments of the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government are accessible to the people. The FOIA sets standards for determining which records must be disclosed and which records may be withheld. The FOIA also provides administrative and judicial remedies for those denied access to records. Above all, the FOIA requires federal agencies to provide the fullest possible disclosure of information to the public.

While the FOIA supports disclosure of federal agency records, the law recognizes the legitimate need to restrict disclosure of some information. The FOIA does not grant an absolute right to examine government documents; the FOIA establishes the right to request records and to receive a response to the request. If a record cannot be released, the requestor is entitled to be told the reason for the denial. The requestor also has a right to appeal the denial and, if necessary, to challenge it in court.

There are limitations on FOIA requests. The FOIA provides that a requestor may ask for records rather than information. This means that an agency is only required to look for an existing record or documents in response to a FOIA request. An agency is neither required to collect information it does not have, nor must an agency do research or analyze data for a requestor. Requestors must ask for existing records. The other limitation is that the law requires that each request must reasonably describe the record being sought. The request must be specific enough to permit a professional employee of the agency who is familiar with the subject matter to locate the record in a reasonable period of time.

It is to everyone's advantage if requests are as precise and as narrow as possible. The requestor benefits because the request can be processed faster and cheaper. The agency benefits because it can better respond to the request. The agency also will be able to use its resources to respond to more requests. The FOIA works best when both the requestor and the agency act cooperatively.

Privacy Act

The Privacy Act serves to balance the government’s need to maintain information about individuals with the rights of individuals to be protected against unwarranted invasions of their privacy stemming from federal agencies’ collection, maintenance, use, and disclosure of personal information about them.

Individuals may request access to information about themselves, request amendment or correction of those records, and request an accounting of disclosures of their records by the Secret Service.

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