Freedom of Information Act & Privacy Act, U.S. Department of Commerce

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Requesting Records About Yourself Under the Privacy Act

The Privacy Act (PA) of 1974 is a Federal law that is set forth in Title 5, Section 552a, of the United States Code (5 U.S.C.552a), as amended. The purpose of the PA is to balance the Government's need to maintain information about individuals with the rights of individuals to be protected against unwarranted invasions of their privacy resulting from the collection, maintenance, use, and disclosure of personal information. In general, the PA allows individuals to learn how the Federal Government collects, maintains, uses, and disseminates records containing personal information. It also safeguards confidentiality by limiting or restricting disclosure of personally identifiable records maintained by Federal agencies. The PA allows individuals to gain access to their own personal records (unless the requested records are exempted from disclosure), and to seek correction or amendment of Federally maintained records that are inaccurate, incomplete, untimely, or irrelevant. As such, the PA establishes a "code of fair information practices," which requires Federal agencies to comply with statutory norms for collecting, maintaining, and disseminating records containing information about individuals.

The PA applies only to U.S. citizens and aliens who are lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States. It applies only to personal information maintained by agencies in the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.

The PA also pertains only to information that is maintained in a "system of records," which the Act defines as a group of agency-controlled records from which information is retrieved by a unique identifier, such as an individual's name and/or birth date, social security number, or employee identification number. The PA further defines a "record" as any individually identifiable set of information that an agency might maintain about a person.

Where to Request Records

If you know which Commerce Bureau maintains the records you are seeking, you can request the information directly from that Bureau's FOIA/Privacy Act staff. Otherwise, send your request to the Department's FOIA /Privacy Act Officer.

How to File a Privacy Act Request

All requests must be in writing. There are three basic elements to a request for records under the Privacy Act. First, the letter should state that the request is being made under the Privacy Act. Second, the letter should include the name, address, and signature of the requester. Third, the request should describe the records as specifically as possible.

You can describe the records by identifying a specific system of records or by describing your contacts or involvement with an agency. If possible, include in your description information such as the date and place the records were created, the file descriptions, subject matter, persons involved, and other pertinent details that will help identify the records.

You may be required to provide some proof of identity before records will be disclosed.

Include a mailing address and a daytime telephone number so we can contact you if necessary. When submitting your request by mail, please mark the envelope "PRIVACY ACT REQUEST."

Keep a copy of your request. You may need to refer to it in further correspondence with the agency.