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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 Freedom of 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 different?

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 else’s 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 similar?

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 started?

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 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 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.

Other Important Resources!

The Government Information Locator System (GILS)  - An index of major HHS information systems. A description of each system is an integral part of GILS.

Government 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.

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   last updated 11/10/2004