Statutes and Resources

Introduction

This Statutes and Resources page was created to give the public basic guidance about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Privacy Act of 1974, and to give information about these laws in a clear, simple manner in order to help members of the public to exercise their rights. The questions and answers have been tailored to the FOIA and Privacy Act procedures of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). This guidance is not a comprehensive treatment of the complex issues associated with the FOIA and the Privacy Act. For more extensive information, please see the U. S. Department of Justice's Guide to the FOIA and Overview of the Privacy Act.

The FOIA, enacted in 1966, as amended, generally provides that any person has a right of access to Federal agency records. This right of access is enforceable in court, except for those records that are protected from disclosure by the nine exemptions to the FOIA. These are discussed further down in the text.

The Privacy Act is closely related to the FOIA, and is another Federal law about access to Federal government records. The Privacy Act establishes certain controls over how the executive branch agencies of the Federal government gather, maintain, and disseminate personal information. Like the FOIA, the Privacy Act can be used to get information, but it pertains only to records the Federal government keeps on individual citizens and lawfully-admitted resident aliens. The FOIA, on the other hand, covers all records under the custody and control of Federal executive branch agencies.

This information contains both general and CNCS-specific information about the most significant provisions of the FOIA and the Privacy Act. We hope you find this information helpful.

The Freedom of Information Act

(1) What information is available under the FOIA?

The FOIA provides access to all Federal agency records (or portions of those records), except those that are protected from release by nine specific exemptions (that is, reasons an agency may withhold records from a requester). The exemptions cover such material as (1) classified national defense and foreign relations information, (2) internal agency personnel rules and practices, (3) material prohibited from disclosure by another law, (4) trade secrets and other confidential business information, (5) certain inter-agency or intra-agency communications, (6) personnel, medical, and other files involving personal privacy, (7) certain records compiled for law enforcement purposes, (8) matters relating to the supervision of financial institutions, and (9) geological information on oil wells.

The FOIA does not apply to Congress or the courts, nor does it apply to records of state or local governments. However, nearly all state governments have their own FOIA-type statutes. You may request information about a state's law by writing to the attorney general of the state.

The FOIA does not require private organizations or businesses to release any information directly to the public, even if that information has been submitted to the government. However, information that private firms submit to the Federal government may be available through a FOIA request, so long as the information is not a trade secret, confidential business information, or protected by some other exemption.

Under the FOIA, you may ask for and receive a copy of any record that is in Federal official files and is not covered by one of the exemptions. For example, suppose you have heard that a certain toy is being investigated as a safety hazard and you want to know the details. In this case, the Consumer Product Safety Commission could probably help you. Perhaps you want to read the latest inspection report on conditions at a nursing home certified for Medicare. Your local Social Security office keeps these records on file. Or you might want to know if the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a file that includes you. In all these examples, you may use the FOIA to request information from the appropriate Federal agency.

When you make a FOIA request, you must describe the material you want as specifically as possible. If the agency, with a reasonable amount of effort, cannot identify what you have requested, it is under no obligation to you. The FOIA does not require agencies to do research for you, to compile or analyze data, or to answer questions.

(2) To whom at CNCS do I send a FOIA request? How and where do I send it?

CNCS has one centralized FOIA office for the entire agency. This office is located within CNCS's Office of the General Counsel, and is also responsible for processing all Privacy Act requests for the agency. FOIA and Privacy Act requests can be sent to CNCS in four ways:

(1) By email: You may send an email request (with attachments, if you wish) to FOIA@cns.gov.

(2) By mail: The address to mail a FOIA request is

      Corporation for National and Community Service
      Office of the General Counsel
      Attn: Freedom of Information Act Officer
      1201 New York Avenue, N.W., Room 10606
      Washington D.C., 20525

Please be aware that because Federal mail goes through a security screening process, it might take up to several weeks for your letter to reach us. Write "FOIA Request" on the outside of your envelope.

(3) By fax: The FOIA fax number is (202) 606-3467. If you send your request by fax, make sure it contains your return address and a telephone contact number or email address.

(4) In person: You may deliver a FOIA request by hand between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, except on Federal holidays.

If you wish, you may ask to review the records CNCS finds in response to your request, rather than have the records sent to you. In that case, we will tell you when the records are available and you can make arrangements with the FOIA Officer to come to CNCS's reading room to view them.

(3) What information do I submit in order to ask for information under the FOIA?

Identify the records you want as accurately and specifically as possible. Although you do not have to give the document's name or title, your request must reasonably describe the records you seek. Any facts or clues which you can give us about the time, place, persons, events, subjects, or other details about the information or records you seek will be help agency personnel decide where to search for records and to determine which records are responsive to your request. This can save you and the government time and money and also improve your prospects for getting what you want. There is a sample request at the end of this page.

Keep a copy of your request. You may need it in the event of an appeal or if your original request is not answered.

If you are not sure whether the information you want falls under one of the nine exemptions, you may ask for it anyway. Although FOIA does not require it, you may state your reason(s) for your request. (You should, however, always give the reason(s) for requesting a fee waiver.) Agencies usually have some discretion to release material that falls under these exemptions. Stating your reason(s) for a request may persuade an agency to give you access to records it might otherwise deny as legally exempt. In addition, giving reasons for a request might help the agency to locate information which is useful to you.

(4) What does it cost to get records under the FOIA?

Depending on the nature of the requester, an agency may charge no fees, fees for searching for the material and making copies for you, or fees for search, review, and copying. The U. S. Department of Justice's Guide to the FOIA has an excellent section on fees. Search fees generally reflect salary levels of the personnel needed for the search. Actual costs can vary from agency to agency. You may also request an electronic copy of your response.

For non-commercial requests, CNCS does not charge requesters for the first two hours of search time or for the first 100 pages of photocopies. CNCS may waive further charges if the total cost is minimal.

You may ask CNCS for a waiver or reduction of fees if you can show that the information you are seeking will, when released, contribute significantly to the public understanding of the operations or activities of the government.

(5) How long will it take to get a response to my request?

Federal agencies are required to answer your request for information within 20 working days of receipt (excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays). If you have not received a reply by the end of that time (be sure to allow for mailing time), you may write a follow-up letter or telephone the agency to ask about the delay. Sometimes an agency may need more than 20 working days to find the records, examine them, possibly consult other persons or agencies, and decide whether it will disclose the requested records requested. If that is the case, the agency is required to inform you before the deadline. Agencies have the right to extend this period up to 10 more working days.

(6) What happens if the agency refuses to give me the information?

An agency ordinarily will deny a FOIA request, in whole or in part, only if it has a serious practical problem with granting it, supported by a legal reason for denial (that is, an exemption). If an agency denies your request, it must be able to prove that the information is covered by one of the nine exemptions listed in the Act. The agency must give you the reason (the exemption) for denial in writing and inform you of your right to appeal the decision.

(7) How do I appeal a denial?

You should promptly send a letter notifying the agency that you want to appeal. CNCS requires that appeals be made within 60 days from the date of CNCS's letter notifying you of our decision to deny your request for records. The denial letter should tell you to whom your appeal letter should be addressed.

To appeal, simply ask the agency to review your FOIA request and change its decision. It is a good idea also to give your reason(s) for believing that the denial was wrong. Be sure you refer to all communications you have had on the matter. It will save time in acting on your appeal if you include copies of the original request for information and the agency's letter of denial. You do not need to enclose copies of any documents released to you.

The agency has 20 working days after it receives your appeal letter to respond. Under certain circumstances, it may also take an extension of up to 10 working days. If, however, an agency took 10 extra days to deny your initial request, it would not be entitled to an extension on the appeal.

(8) What can I do if my appeal is rejected?

If you are willing to invest the time and money, you may take the matter to court. You can file a FOIA lawsuit in either the U.S. District Court where you live, where you have your principal place of business, where the documents are kept, or in the District of Columbia. In court, the agency will have to prove that the withheld records, or the withheld portions of them, are covered by one of the exemptions listed in the FOIA. If you win a substantial portion of your case, the court may require the government to pay court costs and reasonable attorney's fees for you.

(9) Can I ask for information about other people?

The FOIA contains a very important provision concerning personal privacy: Exemption 6. It protects you from others who may seek information about you, but CNCS may also use it to deny a request if you seek information about others. The FOIA's Exemption 6 permits an agency to withhold information about individuals if disclosing it would be a "clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." This includes, for example, almost all of the information in medical files and much of the information in personnel files.

The FOIA's Exemption 6 cannot be used to deny you access to information about yourself, only to deny you information about other persons. To be covered by Exemption 6, the information requested must be (1) about an identifiable individual, (2) an invasion of the individual's privacy if disclosed to others, and (3) "clearly unwarranted" to disclose. Release of information about an individual is considered an invasion of privacy if he or she could reasonably object because of its personal nature or its possible adverse effects upon himself or herself or family.

Such information is not protected by Exemption 6 if the injury to the individual is outweighed by a public interest favoring disclosure. For example, home addresses are generally exempt from release for unspecified or random uses such as commercial solicitation, but may be released to state income tax authorities for state law enforcement. If you were seeking information about a Federal employee's working status, an agency usually would disclose at least his or her name, grade, salary, job title, and permanent work location, but an agency will not usually disclose similar information about an employee of a private business. However, Federal employees do have some privacy protection. For example, if you want to see the details of an investigative report which led to an employee's demotion, an agency might decide that disclosure of these details is not justified on public interest grounds. This would be so even though the information generally would be available to the demoted employee.

The Privacy Act

(1) What is the Privacy Act?

The federal government compiles a wide range of information on individuals. For example, if you were ever in the military or employed by a Federal agency, there should be records of your service. If you have ever applied for a Federal grant or received a student loan guaranteed by the government, you are probably the subject of a file. There are records on every individual who has ever paid income taxes or received a check from Social Security or Medicare.

The Privacy Act, passed by Congress in 1974, establishes certain controls over what personal information is collected by the federal government and how it is used. The Act guarantees three primary rights: (1) the right to see records about yourself, subject to the Privacy Act's exemptions, (2) the right to amend that record if it is inaccurate, irrelevant, untimely, or incomplete, and (3) the right to sue the government for violations of the statute, including permitting others to see your records except as specifically permitted by the Act.

The Privacy Act also provides for certain limitations on agency information practices, such as requiring that information about a person be collected directly from that person to the greatest practical extent; requiring agencies to ensure that their records are relevant, accurate, timely, and complete; and prohibiting agencies from maintaining information describing how an individual exercises his or her First Amendment rights unless the individual consents to it, a statute permits it, or it is within the scope of an authorized law enforcement investigation.

(2) What information may I request under the Privacy Act?

The Privacy Act applies only to documents 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. Like the FOIA, the Privacy Act mainly applies to records held by Federal agencies.

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 that contain classified information on national security or criminal investigations. Another exemption protects information that would identify a confidential source. For example, if an investigator questions someone about your qualifications for Federal employment, and that person agrees to answer only if his or her identity is protected, then an agency can withhold that person's name or any identifying information. The 10 exemptions are set out in the Act.

If you are interested in more details, you should read the Privacy Act in its entirety. You can also read more about the Act at this U.S. Department of Justice page. It is printed in the U.S. Code (Section 552a of Title 5), which can be found in many public and school libraries.

(3) To whom at CNCS do I send a Privacy Act request? How and where do I send it?

CNCS's FOIA Officer also handles all Privacy Act requests. As with FOIA, Privacy Act requests can be submitted in the same three ways. Please see question 2 of the FOIA section above for specific information.

Please make sure, if you send your request through the mail, that you write "Privacy Act Request" on the outside of the envelope. 

As with the FOIA, you may ask to review the records CNCS finds in response to your Privacy Act request, rather than have the records sent to you. In that case, we will tell you when the records are available and you can make arrangements with the FOIA Officer to come to CNCS's reading room to view them.

(4) How do I know if an agency has a file on me?

If you think CNCS has a file pertaining to you, you may write to the FOIA Officer or the CEO of the agency. Agencies are generally required to inform you, upon request, whether or not they have files on you. In addition, agencies are required to report publicly the existence of all systems of records they keep on individuals. The Office of the Federal Register publishes a listing of each agency's systems of records notices, including exemptions, as well as its Privacy Act regulations. The multi-volume work, Privacy Act Issuances Compilation, is updated every two years and can be found in most large reference and university libraries.

(5) What information do I have to provide to CNCS to receive information?

Like other agencies, CNCS requires some proof of identity before we will give you your records. This is intended to protect information about you from unauthorized release to someone other than you. Therefore, we recommend that you enclose proof of identity (such as a copy of your driver's license or other government-issued identification) with your full name and address. Do not send the original documents. Remember to sign your request for information, since your signature is a form of identification. (A notarized signature is better, and required by many agencies.) If we need more proof of identity before releasing your files, we will let you know. Give as much information as possible as to why you believe CNCS has records about you.

(6) What about costs for getting records under the Privacy Act?

Under the Privacy Act, agencies can charge only for the cost of copying records for you, not for time spent locating them.

(7) How long will it take to answer my request?

Under the terms of the Privacy Act, agencies are not required to reply to a request within a specific period of time. However, CNCS will reply as quickly as it is able if it has the requested records  in its own possession. For records that are in storage, we will acknowledge your request within ten work days and send you the actual records as soon as possible. If you do not receive any response within four weeks or so, you might wish to write again, enclosing a copy of your original request.

(8) What if I find that CNCS has incorrect information about me in its records?

The Privacy Act requires that, if an agency maintains personal information about individuals, it must keep those files complete, accurate, timely, and relevant. If, after you see your file, you believe it contains incorrect information, you may write to CNCS's FOIA Officer and ask to have the information corrected. Include all pertinent documentation for each change you are requesting. We will tell you if we need further proof. The Privacy Act requires agencies to notify you within ten working days that they have received your amendment request.

If CNCS grants your request for amendment, it will tell you exactly what it will do to amend the record. If CNCS denies the request for the amendment, you may appeal that decision. Even if CNCS denies your appeal, you have the right to submit a statement that explains why you think the record is wrong, and the agency must attach your statement to the relevant record. CNCS must also tell you of your right to go to court and have a judge review the denial of your appeal.

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

There is no required procedure for Privacy Act appeals, but CNCS will advise you of its own appeal procedure if it denies part or all of your request. If CNCS denies your appeal, you may take the matter to court. If you win your case, you may be awarded court costs and attorney's fees.

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

Although the two laws were enacted for different purposes, there is some similarity in their provisions. This chart outlines some of them:

 

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

Freedom of Information Act

Privacy Act

Access rights

To “any person”

Only for the individual who is the subject of the records sought

Applicable records

All records of Federal agencies

Federal agency records in "systems of records" which contain information about an individual and are retrieved by the use of a name or other personal identifier

Fees

Depend on the nature of the requester and range from none to charges for search, review, and copying.

Only for copying records

Response time

20 business days for simple requests, 30 days for complex requests, and requesters may ask for expedited handling (though agencies are not required to grant it)

Generally within 10 business days, or, in the case of records stored off-site, agencies acknowledge the request within 10 work days

Exemptions
If you request records about yourself under both laws, Federal agencies may withhold the records from you only to the extent the records are exempt under both laws. 

See Department of Justice guidance on FOIA exemptions.

See Department of Justice guidance on Privacy Act exemptions.

Which Act to use?
If you aren’t sure which law applies or would better suit your needs, you may refer to both in your request letter. 

If you want information about the activities of Federal agencies or of another person, make your request under the FOIA, which covers all agency records. You can also use the FOIA to get records about yourself that are not in a Privacy Act "system of records"

If the information you want is about yourself and you wish to avoid possible search fees, make your request under the Privacy Act, which covers most agency records that are about individuals


* * * * *

Sample FOIA Request Letter

Date
Corporation for National and Community Service
Office of the General Counsel
Attn: Freedom of Information Act Officer
1201 New York Avenue, N.W., Room 10606
Washington D.C., 20525

Dear Freedom of Information Act Officer:

Under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. subsection 552, I am requesting access to, or copies of [identify the records as clearly and specifically as possible]. If there are any fees for copying or searching for the records, please let me know before you fill my request. [Or, please supply the records without informing me of the cost if the fees do not exceed $ ______, which I agree to pay.] Optional: I am requesting this information because [state the reason(s) if you think it will help you obtain the information]. If you deny all or any part of this request, please cite each specific exemption you think justifies your refusal to release the information and notify me of appeal procedures available under the law. Optional: If you have any questions about handling this request, you may telephone me at __________(home phone) or at ___________(office phone).

Sincerely,
Name
Address

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