This chapter focuses on the specific issue of the federal Freedom of Information Act and associated state and local freedom of information laws. While full of good intentions regarding openness in government, the statutes have increasingly been applied to circumstances when individuals or organizations seek government records for legal or business purposes. As such, confidential business information and private personal information are both vulnerable when data are in government hands. Given the maze of exemptions and agency interpretations regarding freedom of information requests, the circumstances are both highly variable and unpredictable. Better understanding of the statutes and their interpretations will help individuals and organizations make better decisions regarding data interactions with various levels of government.
In an age with ever increasing amounts of personal data held in commercial and government databases, many individuals view the government as the champion of their personal right to privacy. While this is true to some extent, it is also true that various levels of government are great generators, collectors, and suppliers of personal data. Some is published as a matter of course, some is sold. But a substantial amount of information flows out of the federal, state, and local governments every day as a result of freedom of information requests. Indeed, it is quite possible that information you did not even realize the government holds is being turned over to a private concern right now, whether the government agency involved really wants to do so or not.
In this chapter, we will look at general trends in data collection and processing and how they relate to statute, execution, and court precedent concerning the federal Freedom of Information Act and related state laws. We will cover the laws in some detail, including common exemptions from requests and changes in the law over time. Agency practices related to the act and key court decisions will also be covered.
With that background, we will consider the status and vulnerability of confidential business information passed on to governments. Because such information increasingly includes personal details about individuals (chiefly customers), government-held business information impacts our privacy discussion. We will then move on to consider the status and vulnerability of government databases concerning individual citizens.
The main point of the chapter is that matters remain in flux in this area. Government openness is fairly well-defined but privacy rights are not entirely clear, especially related to freedom of information requests. Regardless of which way the balance tips (openness vs. privacy), more certainty will help government, organizations, and individuals better plan how and when to share their own information resources.