Your Rights to Federal Records

The following are frequently asked questions (FAQs) pertaining to the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FAQs provide basic guidance to assist you when making a request for federal records.

Privacy FAQs

What information can I request under the Privacy Act?

The Privacy Act applies only to records about individuals maintained by agencies in the executive branch of the federal government. It applies to these records only if they are in a "system of records," which means they are retrieved by an individual's name, Social Security Number, or some other personal identifier. In other words, the Privacy Act does not apply to information about individuals in records that are filed under other subjects, such as organizations or events, unless the agency also indexes and retrieves them by individual names or other personal identifiers.

There are 10 exemptions to the Privacy Act under which an agency can withhold certain kinds of information from you. Examples of exempt records are those containing classified information on national security and those concerning criminal investigations. Another exemption often used by agencies is that which protects information that would identify a confidential source. For example, if an investigator questions a person about your qualifications for federal employment and that person agrees to answer only if his identity is protected, then his name or any information that would identify him can be withheld. The 10 exemptions are set out in the law. If you are interested in more details, you should read the Privacy Act in its entirety, Section 552a of Title 5.

What is the cost for getting records under the Privacy Act?

Under the Privacy Act, an agency can charge only for the cost of copying records, not for the time spend locating them.

How long will it take to answer my request?

Under the terms of the Privacy Act, an agency is required to acknowledge in writing receipt of a request within ten days (excluding weekends and legal public holidays). An estimated date for responding to the request will be provided in the acknowledgment letter. Any additional information needed to clarify the request will also be requested in the letter.

What if I find that a federal agency has incorrect information about me in its files?

If after seeing your file, you believe that it contains incorrect information and should be amended, write to the agency official who released the record to you. Include all pertinent documentation for each change you are requesting. The agency will let you know if further proof is needed. The law requires an agency to notify you of the receipt of such an amendment request within 10 working days of receipt. If you request for amendment is granted, the agency will tell you precisely what will be done to amend the record. You may appeal a denial.

Even if an agency denies your appeal, you have the right to submit a statement explaining why you think the record is wrong and the agency much attach your statement to any nonexempt records involved. The agency must also inform you of your right to go to court and have a judge review the denial of your appeal.

What can I do if I am denied information requested under the Privacy Act?

If a request for information is denied, you may appeal the denial by filing a written request for review within thirty calendar days after the issuance of the written denial.

Send the request for an appeal to:

The Privacy Appeals Officer, Department of Housing and Urban Development, 451 7th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20410

The appeals package must contain:

  • A copy of the request for access;
  • A copy of the written denial of the request for access;
  • A statement of the reasons why the initial denial is believed to be in error and,
  • The individual's signature.

Whom do I contact with my request? How do I request information under the Privacy Act?

If you are making a written request address your letter to:

The Departmental Privacy Act Officer, Department of Housing and Urban Development, 451 7th Street, SW, Room 4178, Washington, DC 20410

  • Be sure to write "Privacy Act Request" clearly on both the letter and the envelope.
  • Give as much information as possible about what records are being requested and include the name of the "systems of records" notice, if known.
  • Do not send any original documents. Remember to sign your request for information.
  • Requests for personnel records can be made directly to the Office of Human Resources.

Generally, a document with your photograph (building pass, driver's license, etc.) is accepted proof of identity. Written requests for access can establish proof of identity by a notarized statement or equivalent.

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The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) FAQs

What information can I request under the FOIA?

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides access to all federal agency records except for those records (or portions of those records) that are protected from disclosure by any of nine exemptions or three exclusions (reasons for which an agency may withhold records from a requester). The exemptions cover:

(1) classified national defense and foreign relations information,
(2) internal agency rules and practices,
(3) information that is prohibited from disclosure by another law,
(4) trade secrets and other confidential business information,
(5) inter-agency or intra-agency communications that are protected by legal privileges,
(6) information involving matters of personal privacy,
(7) certain information compiled for law enforcement purposes,
(8) information relating to the supervision of financial institutions, and
(9) geological information on wells.

The three exclusions, which are rarely used, pertain to especially sensitive law enforcement and national security matters. Even if information is exempt from disclosure under the FOIA, the agency still may disclose the information as a matter of administrative discretion if it chooses to do so and disclosure of that information is not prohibited by any law. The FOIA does not apply to Congress, the courts, or the central offices of the White House, nor does it apply to records of state or local governments. However, all state governments have their own FOIA-type statutes. If, on the other hand, the records you seek are about yourself, you may request them under for the FOIA and the Privacy Act of 1974. In such cases, records may be withheld only if they are exempt under both.

When you make a FOIA request, you must describe the records that you want as clearly and specifically as possible. If the agency cannot identify and locate records that you have requested with a reasonable amount of effort, it will not be able to assist you. However, the FOIA does not require agencies to do research for you, analyze data, answer written questions, or in any other way create records in order to respond to a request.

What is the cost?

The FOIA permits agencies to charge fees to FOIA requesters. For noncommercial requesters, an agency may charge only for the actual cost of searching for records and the cost of making copies, refer to HUD's Fees and Fee Waivers for additional information.

How long will it take to answer my request?

Under the FOIA, federal agencies are required to respond to your request within 20 days of receipt (excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays).

What happens if your request is denied?

If the agency locates records in response to your request, it can withhold (all or any portion of them) only if they are exempt from disclosure. If an agency denies your request, in whole or in part, it ordinarily must provide an estimate of the amount of material withheld, state the reason (s) for the denial, and inform you of your right to appeal.

How do I appeal?

In order to appeal a denial, promptly send a letter to the agency, which should be made within 30 to 60 days after you receive the notification of a denial.

Visit HUD's FOIA homepage or another Federal Agency site.

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A Comparison of the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act

What is the relationship between the FOIA and the Privacy Act?

Although the two laws were enacted for different purposes, there is some similarity in their provisions. Both the Privacy Act and FOIA give people the right to request access to records held by agencies of the federal government. The Privacy Act's access rights are given only to the individual who is the subject of the records sought (if that individual is a U.S. citizen or a lawfully admitted permanent resident alien), but the FOIA's access right are generally given to "any person".

The Privacy Act applies to only those federal agency records that are in a "system of records" containing information about individuals that is retrieved by the use of a name or personal identifier. The FOIA, however, applies to all federal agency records. Each law has a somewhat different set of fees, time limits, and exemptions from its right of access.

If the information you want pertains to the activities of a federal agency, and organization, or some person other than yourself, you should make your request under the FOIA, which covers all agency records. If the information you want is about yourself, you should make the request also under the Privacy Act, which covers most records or agencies that pertain to individuals. Sometimes you can use the FOIA to get records about yourself that are not in a Privacy Act "system of records". If you are in doubt about which law applies or which suites your needs, you may refer to both in your request letter. If you request records about yourself and the Privacy Act applies, the agency should process the request under both the Privacy Act and FOIA and withhold requested information from you only if it is exempt under both laws.

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