The Privacy Act of 1974: An Assessment. APPENDIX 4 TO The Report of The Privacy Protection Study Commission.. The Individual Access Principle


The Privacy Act's second principle is that an individual should have a right to see and obtain a copy of a record an agency maintains about him. Prior to the Act's passage, an individual was able to obtain copies of the records a Federal agency might keep about him in several ways. The Armed Services, for example, made many personnel, medical, and performance records available to servicemen. In fact, the subjects of certain personnel records are required to review and sign them once each year. Federal agencies also have procedures that give an individual access to records about him when there is a dispute over his entitlement to benefits.

In addition, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) [5 U.S.C 552], which predates the Privacy Act by seven years, allows any person to see and obtain a copy of any record in the possession of the Federal government without regard to his need for or interest in it. An agency can withhold a record that falls within one of nine FOIA exemptions, but its determination to do so, if appealed by the requestor, must withstand administrative and judicial review.

Individuals could and did use the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to their own files prior to passage of the Privacy Act. There were several drawbacks, however. First, an agency could decline to release information deemed to be part of the internal deliberative processes of government.8 In certain cases, this resulted in a considerable amount of information about an individual being taken out of a file prior to giving the file to him. Second, in the early days of the Freedom of Information Act, some agencies refused to disclose personnel and medical files to an individual on the grounds that disclosure to the individual would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of his personal privacy.9

The individual access provision of the Privacy Act [5 U.S.C 552a(d)] was enacted in part to clarify these uncertainties with respect to an individual's right to see and obtain a copy of a record about himself. The Privacy Act has its own set of exemptions from its individual access requirement which will be discussed below. For all other systems subject to the Act, however, agencies must now facilitate access by an individual when he so requests and may never keep records about himself from him on the grounds that they constitute communications within or among agencies. Nonetheless, the Commission has found that the number of Privacy Act access requests (i.e., requests specifically citing the Privacy Act) has not been great and that most have come from agency employees or former employees. One reason for this may be that preexisting law and practice continue to be used. In addition, the public's awareness of the Freedom of Information Act still appears to be much sharper than its awareness of the Privacy Act. Another reason may also be that the Privacy Act's own exemptions from the access requirement are too sweeping. The Central Intelligence Agency and some major law enforcement systems qualify for a blanket exemption from the access requirement. Thus, individuals who want access to records about themselves in those systems must use the Freedom of Information Act as their vehicle.

The Privacy Act exemptions from the individual access requirement are permissive, not mandatory. In addition, unlike the Freedom of Information Act exemptions, they apply to systems of records rather than to specific requests for access to specific information. To invoke any one of them an agency must publish its intention to do so in advance. As a result, some over-cautious lawyers and administrators have made excessively broad claims of exemption. Once an exemption is published, moreover, agency operating personnel are inclined to use it, thus eliminating exercises of judgment in light of the particular record sought.

On the other hand, some agencies have not claimed exemptions to which they may have been entitled, and others have claimed them but do not use them. The Central Intelligence Agency, for example, processes individual access requests under the Privacy Act despite having claimed the broad exemption the Act provides it. On balance, however, the Act's requirement that exemptions be claimed in advance, and that they cover entire systems rather than types of records or specific requests, has resulted in unnecessary exclusions of records from the scope of the Act's individual access requirement.

Agency rules on individual access, and on the exercise of the other rights the Act establishes, appear, in most instances, to be in compliance with the Act's rule-making requirements. Yet, they too are often difficult to comprehend, and because the principal places to find them are in the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations, it is doubtful that many people know they exist, let alone how to locate and interpret them. Furthermore, the Act's requirement that an individual specifically name the record system in which the record he desires is located is not realistic. Fortunately, many agencies have gone beyond the letter of the law in assisting individuals whose access requests reasonably describe the records sought, but the requirement to name the system still seems likely to discourage some people from asking to see their records. Finally, the Act's requirement that an agency keep an accounting of each disclosure of a record to the individual to whom it pertains appears to be an added incentive to process access requests under the Freedom of Information Act rather than the Privacy Act when an agency has a choice (i.e., when the individual does not specify that his request is being made under one Act or the other).

It would appear, in sum, that individuals continue to rely on preexisting laws and practices when they want access to agency records about themselves. From the individual's point of view, one advantage of the Freedom of Information Act is that there are specific limits on how long an agency may take to respond to a request, whereas in the Privacy Act there are none. Furthermore, although the FOIA permits agencies to charge search fees, while the Privacy Act does not, in practice such charges are rarely made when an individual is asking for information about himself.

The Privacy Act has benefitted a current or past Federal employee to the extent that it allows him to circumvent the FOIA exemption for documents pertaining to internal agency deliberations when he wants access to some of the more interesting parts of an evaluation report or inquiry into his background. The Privacy Act has retained a limited exemption for some personnel evaluations, but its net effect has been to increase the accessibility of such material. It could also be concluded that Federal employees, unlike the private citizen, are aware that the Act exists and, being comfortable with bureaucratic procedures, have quickly learned how to use it.

To aid an individual in gaining access to his record, the Commission believes that the Privacy Act should parallel the approach of the Freedom of Information Act in that an individual should be required to make a request which reasonably describes the record to which he desires access. In those situations in which an agency believes an individual has made too broad an access request, it should help him refine his request. This is the procedure most agencies are following now, but modification of the language of the Act is important. The likelihood of a private citizen being aware of the name of a system of records published in the Federal Register is too remote to be relied on.

In addition, the Commission believes that the Privacy Act should be the exclusive vehicle for individuals requesting access to records about themselves, provided that the Privacy Act's approach to exemptions from the individual access requirement is modifled to parallel that of the Freedom of Information Act (as discussed below). Making the exemption approaches parallel is necessary to assure that the individual does not receive less information using the Privacy Act as his access vehicle than he would if his request for access were processed under the Freedom of Information Act. Because agencies may currently ignore the time limits suggested in guidelines for implementation of the Privacy Act issued by the Office of Management and Budget, 10 explicit time limits should also be added to the Privacy Act so that by making the Act the individual's exclusive access vehicle he will not lose the time limit protections now in the Freedom of Information Act. The fees, appeal rights, and sanctions of the Privacy Act, however, would still apply.

Besides the direct benefits for the individual of such an approach there are certain procedural benefits to the agencies which should be noted. Currently, Freedom of Information Act offices and officers are required to respond to requests for access to both personal information about individuals and information about agency activities (e.g., regarding agency policies). By making the Privacy Act the exclusive access vehicle for any individual requesting information about himself, some stress will be removed. The actual number of requests for information will not be affected, but this approach better divides responsibility in the agencies. Perhaps some of the confusion surrounding the interrelation between the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act will even be reduced.

In addition to requiring an agency to assist an individual in reasonably describing the records to which he seeks access, it is important for an individual to have access to, and the right to amend, information about which he may not have enough detailed knowledge to formulate a specific request. Thus, the Commission believes that access to substantially similar or derivative versions of records sought by an individual should be provided automatically in response to his request for the original record to the extent that providing such access does not constitute an unreasonable burden on the agency.

There are two related situations at issue here. The first is where there may be an exact duplicate of a record maintained in another part of the agency. The second, and more important, is where some portion of a record may have been copied and then subsequently amended, appended, or otherwise altered. Alternatively, two records, or portions thereof, may have been combined. In each of these cases, it can be reasonably inferred that the individual would want to know about all versions of the record were he aware of them. Thus, the burden must be on the agency to take reasonable affirmative steps to describe and, if requested, to make available to the individual the several versions. While the individual may not want to see an exact duplicate of the original record, for example, he may wish to amend it if he amends the original. Moreover, the uses and disclosures of exact duplicates of a record, as well as substantially similar or derivative versions of the record, often will not be the same as the uses and disclosures of the original, and thus it can be assumed that the individual will want to know about them.

The Commission believes that the Privacy Act's approach to exemptions from the individual access requirement should be modified to parallel that of the Freedom of Information Act. Currently, Privacy Act exemptions are claimed in advance and apply to entire systems of records. Pre-claimed exemptions can be waived on a case-by-case basis, and while there is evidence that agencies are not using all of the exemptions claimed, they still seem to be claiming every one possible (including, in some cases, exemptions to which they would not appear to be entitled), but then using them only as needed. This creates uncertainty for the individual which the framers of the Act did not intend.

Abandonment of the system-of-records definition currently in the Privacy Act necessitates a different exemption strategy than the one the Act now has. The natural model to use is the Freedom of Information Act. The FOIA allows exemptions for certain types of information rather than for entire systems of records; exemptions may be invoked only when applicable, not claimed in advance. In addition, any segregable portion of a record which by itself does not qualify for an exemption must be provided to the individual. The FOIA approach appears to be working well, and its presumption that access should be granted to any part of a record for which an agency cannot sustain an exemption claim seems highly desirable.

Using the FOIA approach to exemptions would have the unintended effect, however, of voiding the Privacy Act provision that allows the CIA and law enforcement agencies to maintain unverified information obtained from intelligence or investigative sources.11 Consequently, if the suggested exemption policy is adopted, it should allow the CIA, or any agency or component thereof which performs as its principal function any activity relating to the enforcement of criminal laws, to maintain information whose accuracy, timeliness, completeness, or relevance is questionable, provided, however, that such information is clearly identified as such to all users or recipients of it. This would preserve the Act's current policy. The only new requirement would be that the unverified information be clearly identified as such when it is disclosed to anyone else.

The Commission believes that certain of the specific exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act should actually be duplicated in the Privacy Act. These include the Freedom of Information Act exemptions dealing with information specifically authorized to be kept secret in the interest of national defense and foreign policy, certain investigative information compiled for law enforcement purposes, and operating reports used by an agency responsible for the supervision of financial institutions. This, too, would clarify, without altering current policy, and it would have the further advantage of incorporating the existing body of judicial interpretation as to what may or may not be withheld pursuant to the FOIA exemptions. Today, an individual is supposed to be granted access to the larger of the amounts of information to which he would be entitled under the FOIA or the Privacy Act, so there seems to be no practical reason for the two Acts to have different exemptions in the same area.

Finally, the Commission believes that the Act's requirements with respect to a patient's access to a medical record an agency maintains about him should be brought into line with Recommendation (5) in Chapter 7 of its final report. The Commission also believes that the Act should be refined to allow agencies to deny access to a parent or legal guardian in those situations in which another statute authorizes such withholding.