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Home > Privacy and Government > Privacy Law Governing the Public Sector > The Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (5 U.S.C. 552) is a very important part of the federal administrative laws. Acting as a check on federal agency power and ensuring open government, FOIA makes nearly all information agencies hold accessible to the public.

Two exemptions in FOIA protect personal privacy interests from disclosure. The first allows agencies to withhold information about individuals in personnel and medical files "disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." The second exemption allows agencies to withhold records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes for a number of reasons, including if their release "would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy."

In order to preserve open government values, these exemptions to FOIA should be read narrowly. For this reason, and because governments can always change the rules that apply to information that they hold, personal information in the hands of a government agency is never truly safe from disclosure. The surest way to keep such information private is to prevent it from being collected by governments in the first place. In many government programs, this is not an option. Threats to privacy and loss of privacy are largely unrecognized costs of many government programs.


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[updated 9/29/00]

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