Your Right to Privacy: A Basic Guide to Legal Rights in an Information Society

By Evan Hendricks; Trudy Hayden et al. | Go to book overview

II
Access to Government Records

Can a person gain access to US government records?

Yes. In fact the Freedom of Information Act ( FOIA)1 creates a stronger right to government records than any other law does to any other kind of record. Enacted in 1966 and amended substantially in 1974 and 1986, the FOIA allows everyone in the world to obtain all records in possession of US executive branch agencies unless the records fall under one of the nine exemptions that permit withholding. In addition, the Privacy Act 2 also allows people access to a more narrow range of government documents that pertain to themselves. Agencies that are covered by the FOIA include the Department of Health and Human Services, the Defense Department, the Justice Department and its components (such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation), the Securities and Exchange Commission, and other federal agencies that make up the "alphabet soup" which constitutes the US government. The law also covers government corporations like Amtrak, the US Postal Service and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. While it covers the Office of Management and Budget, it does not reach the records of the White House staff -- whose sole function is to advise and assist the president -- or the records of Congress. The law does not apply to records of state or local governments, private business, schools, organizations, or individuals. Nearly all states and a few cities have their own open record laws.

Although the term agency record is not defined by the FOIA, it is generally accepted to include documents that are in possession of and controlled by federal agencies, including congressionally generated material which ends up in agency record systems. On the other hand, personal notes and other semiprivate materials of agency personnel -- such as those maintained in desk drawers -- that are not used by a wider group of agency personnel have been ruled to not constitute "agency records."

The Privacy Act permits only Americans and permanent residents to request records on themselves. It defines a record

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