A CITIZEN'S GUIDE ON USING THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT
AND THE PRIVACY ACT OF 1974 TO REQUEST GOVERNMENT RECORDS
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VII. C. LOCATING RECORDS
There is no central index of Federal Government records about individuals. An individual who wants to inspect records about himself or herself must first identify which agency has the records. Often, this will not be difficult. For example, an individual who was employed by the Federal Government knows that the employing agency or the Office of Personnel Management maintains personnel files.
Similarly, an individual who receives veterans' benefits will normally find relevant records at the Department of Veterans Affairs or at the Defense Department. Tax records are maintained by the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security records by the Social Security Administration, passport records by the State Department, etc.
For those who are uncertain about which agency has the records that are needed, there are several sources of information. First, an individual can ask an agency that might maintain the records. If that agency does not have the records, it may be able to identify the proper agency.
Second, a government directory such as the United States Government Manual \32\ contains a complete list of all Federal agencies, a description of agency functions, and the address of the agency and its field offices. An agency responsible for operating a program normally maintains the records related to that program.
Third, a Federal Information Center can help to identify government agencies, their functions, and their records. These Centers, which are operated by the General Services Administration, serve as clearinghouses for information about the Federal Government. There are Federal Information Centers throughout the country.
Fourth, every 2 years, the Office of the Federal Register publishes a compilation of system of records notices for all agencies. These notices contain a complete description of each record system maintained by each agency. The compilation--which is published in five large volumes--is the most complete reference for information about Federal agency personal information practices.\33\ The information that appears in the compilation also appears in various issues of the Federal Register.\34\
The compilation--formally called Privacy Act Issuances--may be difficult to find and hard to use. It does not contain a comprehensive index. Copies will be available in some Federal depository libraries and possibly some other libraries as well as the website maintained by the Office of the Federal Register (see note 20). Although the compilation is the best single source of detailed information about personal records maintained by Federal agencies, it is not necessary to consult the compilation before making a Privacy Act request. A requester is not required to identify the specific system of records that contains the information being sought. It is sufficient to identify the agency that has the records. Using information provided by the requester, the agency will determine which system of records has the files that have been requested.
Those who request records under the Privacy Act can help the agency by identifying the type of records being sought. Large agencies maintain hundreds of different record systems. A request can be processed faster if the requester tells the agency that he or she was employed by the agency, was the recipient of benefits under an agency program, or had other specific contacts with the agency.
\32\ The United States Government Manual is sold by the Superintendent of Documents of the U.S. Government Printing Office. Virtually every public library should have a copy. An electronic version of the Manual may be found on the Office of the Federal Register website provided at note 20.
\33\ Each system notice contains the name of the system; its location; the categories of individuals covered by the system; the categories of records in the system; the legal authority for maintenance of the system; the routine disclosures that may be made for records in the system; the policies and practices of storing, retrieving, accessing, retaining, and disposing of records; the name and address of the manager of the system; procedures for requesting access to the records; procedures for requesting correction or amendment of the records; the source of the information in the system; and a description of any disclosure exemptions that may be applied to the records in the system.
\34\ Agencies are required to publish in the Federal Register a description of each system of records when the system is established or amended. In the past, agencies were required to publish an annual compilation in the Federal Register, but that requirement was eliminated in 1982. As a result, it will be difficult to find a complete list of all systems of records in the Federal Register. Some agencies do, however, reprint all system notices from time to time. An agency's Privacy Act/FOIA officer may be able to provide more information about the agency's publication practices. An electronic version of a 1995 compilation of Privacy Act regulations and systems of records may be found on the Office of the Federal Register website provided at note 20.