These days, more privacy information is at risk than ever of being inadvertently accessed by hackers or unwitting Privacy Act (PA) program administrators within the government. Additionally, telecommunications and other laws, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, are cause for concern for U.S. citizens. If there is one control PA officers have, it’s to ensure each citizen request for data is diligently and thoroughly analyzed before any final decision is made on how to appropriately address the request, ensuring maximum access while protecting the identity of those whose data has been entrusted to the government.
When a PA request arrives on the PA officer’s desk, a critical analysis of the request may, at times, involve application of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). PA requesters typically are not aware of the how their request may unfold regarding the information they are requesting. Oftentimes, they don’t know or understand how their requests can easily transition into the FOIA.
The end result of the analysis will determine which act will provide most, if not all, the information in the original request. Recently, a requester was seeking financial records pertaining to the individual. In the same request, the individual also asked for records pertaining to travel policies and other manuals from the organization.
At first, providing the financial records pertaining to the individual was easy enough. This would have been a PA request. However, when the individual also asked for travel policies and manuals pertaining to employees, the request fell under the FOIA framework and required an expanded role from the PA officer to contact program offices possessing these manuals, as the request then involved processing charges that would not have been incurred otherwise.
In another example, an individual made a PA request for the questions and answers from their own recent hiring board interview as well as those of the candidate selected. Again, in this example, the information pertaining to the individual submitting the request would have been made available to them; however, when the requester framed the request to include third-party information, the request suddenly fell under FOIA. The hiring candidate’s personal information would not be released to the requestor without the third party’s approval.
The framework for FOIA requests can often delay an individual’s entire request as well as potentially cost money. Other provisions of the FOIA, although they provide for appeals and waiver of fees, may extend the timeframe when compared to the response rate of the PA due to any number of reasons not limited to the number of FOIA requests being processed by the agency responding to the request, tracking process being used by the agency and the workload of solicitors.
Experienced PA officers should have not only a depth of experience in the PA program but also a breadth of experience in and understanding of the FOIA framework. This helps accomplish quality customer service and facilitates parsing the request in cases where the customer may not know the impact of the PA request.
Privacy officers can provide a valuable service to the requester by explaining these differences and can help educate the community while providing quality customer service. This not only provides protection to the individual making the request but unilaterally also protects the identity of the third-party employees who unknowingly may be part of a request for organizational records.
Most importantly, this process helps fulfill trust, integrity and honesty for the programs being managed by PA officers as a matter of fiduciary responsibilities they carry as employees of the government.
Richard Lopez, Jr., is the FOIA and PA officer for the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, an office agency within the Department of Interior. He served 26 years of active duty in the U.S. Air Force and served as FOIA/PA officer prior to his retirement from the Air Force. Richard is a PhD student with Walden University and enjoys racing in triathlons.
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