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Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts

General: This section is a brief primer on these well-known but perhaps little-understood laws. You may not need a complete understanding of the complexities of these two laws in order to use them. If you need more than what you see below, consider visiting your closest law library to read the texts of the laws, their interpretations, and case law. To see just the laws themselves, without commentary, please use the links in the following paragraphs.

What’s the difference between the two laws?

In brief, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 offer you a chance to obtain a copy of a record maintained by a Federal agency, a record that could be obtained by any other member of the public making a similar request, and - thus - a record that does not contain any information on individuals. In general, you use this law to ask for copies of reports on specific matters or for compilations of records on a particular subject.

In contrast, the Privacy Act offers you a chance to request, review, and ask for corrections in Federal records that are about you. No one else can ask for these records and you may not request someone else’s material. A common use of this act is therefore by people who are curious about what records the various Federal law enforcement agencies may have on them.

OK, how are they alike?

Both laws afford you the opportunity ask for 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. Neither are records of private entities, although some of their records may be covered by other Federal and State statutes.

Also, before filing a request under either law, you must first identify the agency that is most likely to have the material. There is, alas, 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’re not sure - and most people aren’t - you may consult a reference librarian or talk to our National Contact Center by calling toll-free 1 (800) FED INFO.

So, how do I proceed?

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. [You might want to see Government Publications for more guidance.] If the material is not sold or distributed free of charge, some agencies have no problem agreeing to give you something. Other agencies may insist that you must file a request through the agency’s 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 written guidance?

The General Services Administration and the Department of Justice jointly publish "Your Right to Federal Records." You may request a paper copy by calling our National Contact Center toll-free 1 (800) FED INFO, or you may view it and/or download it by visiting the Federal Citizen Information Center web site. Both a text version and an HTML version are available.Image of a button linking to the top of the page

Reviewed: August 4, 2004

Logo of the General Services AdministrationThis service is provided by the Federal Citizen Information Center of the U.S. General Services Administration. If you have a comment or question, e-mail us.