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The Federal Privacy Act
Find out what the government knows about you 
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Introduction 
It is a rare individual who has managed to keep at least some of their personal information from being stored in a US Federal government database. Doing just about anything, will get your name and numbers recorded. Here are just few examples:

  • Gotten a Social Security Card 
  • Gotten a paycheck 
  • Filed a tax return 
  • Registered for the draft 
  • Served in the Military 
  • Applied for or gotten a government loan 
  • Received Social Security or VA benefits
  •  Worked or contracted for the Federal Government

The Privacy Act of 1974 regulates what personal information the Federal Government can collect about private individuals and how that information can be used.

Under the Privacy Act you have the right to:

  • See the information the Government has about you, subject to the Act's exemptions. 
  • Change or delete any information that is incorrect, irrelevant, untimely, or incomplete. 
  • Sue the Government for violations of the Act, including allowing others unauthorized access to your personal information.

Much like the Freedom of Information Act, the Privacy Act provides a legal process for accessing personal information.

Information You Can Request 
The Privacy Act does not apply to all government information or agencies. Only Executive Branch agencies fall under the Privacy Act. In addition, you may only request information or records that can be retrieved by your name, Social Security number, or some other personal identifier. For example: You cannot request information regarding your participation in a private club or organization unless the agency indexes and can retrieve the information by your name or other personal identifiers. 

As with the Freedom of Information Act, the government can withhold certain information "exempted" under the Privacy Act. Examples include information concerning national security or criminal investigations. Another commonly used Privacy Act exemption protects records that might identify an agency's source of confidential information. For Example: If you apply for a job in the CIA, you would probably not be allowed to find out the names of people the CIA interviewed in regard to your background. 

Exemptions and requirements of the Privacy Act are more complicated than those of the Freedom of Information Act. You should read the Privacy Act in its entirety and seek legal assistance if necessary.

Who to Contact
Use the same contact list you would use to request information under the FOIA. As with the FOIA, no single government agency handles all Privacy Act requests.

Which Agency to Contact
Contact the Privacy Act Officer or head of all agencies you think might have information about you. (Agency List). Agencies are required to tell you whether they have information on you or not. 

Most federal agencies also have links to their specific Privacy and FOIA Act instructions on their Web sites. This information will tell you what types of data the agency collects on individuals, why they need it, what they do with it, and how you can get it. (Refer to: Master Index of Federal Agencies)

How to Request Privacy Act Information 
Send a letter (regular mail only) addressed to the Privacy Officer or agency head. To speed handling, clearly mark "Privacy Act Request" on both the letter and the front of the envelope. Here's a sample letter:

Date
Privacy Act Request
Agency Privacy or FOIA Officer [or Agency Head]
Name of Agency or Component
Address

Dear ____________:

Under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. subsection 552, and the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. subsection 552a, I am requesting access to [identify the information you want in complete detail and state why you believe the agency has the information about you.]

If there are any fees for searching or copying these records, please inform me before filling my request. [or, Please send me the records without informing me of the cost unless the fees exceed $______, which I agree to pay.]

If you deny any or all of this request, please cite each specific exemption you feel justifies the refusal to release the information and notify me of appeal procedures available to me under the law.

[Optionally: If you have any questions about this request, you may contact me by telephone at ______ (home phone) or _______ (office phone).]

Sincerely,
Name
Address

What it Will Cost 
The Privacy Act allows agencies to charge no more than their costs for copying the information for you. They cannot charge for researching your request. How Long it Will Take The Act places no time limits on the agencies. Most agencies try to respond within 10 working days. If you have not received a reply within a month, send the request again and enclose a copy of your original request.

How Long it Will Take? 
The Act places no time limits on the agencies. Most agencies try to respond within 10 working days. If you have not received a reply within a month, send the request again and enclose a copy of your original request.

What to Do if the Information is Wrong 
If you think the information the agency has on you is wrong and should be changed, write a letter addressed to the agency official who sent the information to you. Include the exact changes you think should be made along with any documentation you have that backs up your claim.

Agencies have 10 working days to notify you of receipt of your request and to inform you if they need further proof or details of the changes from you. If the agency grants you request, they will inform you of exactly what they will do to amend the records.

What to Do if Your Request is Denied 
If the agency denies your Privacy Act request (either to supply or change information), they will advise you in writing of their appeal process. You can also take your case to court and be awarded court costs and attorney's fees if you win. 

Also See: Guide to Freedom of Information Act

 

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