The Privacy Act of 1974 (the Privacy Act) provides protections for the release of records from federal agencies that contain personally identifiable information. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows the public to request access to various federal records. In regards to service members, the federal government strives to seek a balance between these two laws, supporting the public's right to obtain information with a service member's right to privacy. This article will provide background information on these laws, how they apply to you, and how you or your family can request information.
What is the Privacy Act?
The Privacy Act is a United States federal law that protects records that can be retrieved from a system of records by personal identifiers such as a name, social security number, or other identifying number or symbol. The law further defines a system of records as any grouping of information about an individual under the control of a federal agency from which information is retrievable by personal identifiers.
You are entitled to access your records and to request the correction of these records by stating the reasons for such actions with supporting justification showing how the record is untimely, incomplete, inaccurate, or irrelevant. The Privacy Act also prohibits disclosure of these records without your written consent unless one of twelve disclosure exceptions applies.
What is the FOIA?
Enacted in 1966, the FOIA generally provides that any person has a right to obtain access to federal agency records, with some exceptions. The intent of the FOIA is to make federal agencies accountable to the public for their actions. The FOIA requires agencies to publish statements of its organizations, functions, rules, procedures, general policy, any changes made, and how to get information. Additionally, for public inspection and copying, agencies must index and make available statements of policy, manuals and instructions, and final opinions and orders in cases, as well as the indexes.
The FOIA applies to all records created or received by the agency and in its possession or under its control. Agencies must make records available to the public on request, unless they fall within one of the nine statutory exemptions.
How do the Privacy Act and the FOIA apply to service members and their families?
As employees of the federal government, the individual branches of Service and the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) maintain Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) for Active and Reserve Component service members and veterans, respectively. Each organization provides limited access to the general public to military records in an effort to strike a balance between the public's right to obtain information from federal records, as outlined in the FOIA, and your right to privacy as defined by the Privacy Act.
The type of information releasable to the general public from federal records is dependent upon whether or not a person is requesting information under the provisions of the FOIA or has authorization from you or next-of-kin.
- With your or your next-of-kin's authorization. You (or your next-of-kin if you are deceased) must authorize the release of any information not available to the public under the FOIA. In some cases, you may already possess military documents that contain the information you are seeking. The authorization must be in writing; specify what additional information or copies that the Services or NPRC may release and include your signature or the signature of your next-of-kin.
- Without your or your next-of-kin's authorization. Without your (or your next-of-kin if you are deceased) consent, the Services or NPRC can only release limited information from OMPF to the general public. Examples of information which may be available from OMPF without an unwarranted invasion of privacy include: name, Service number, dates of Service, branch of Service, final duty status, final rank, assignments and geographical locations, military education level, awards and decorations, photograph, transcript of courts-martial trials, and place of entrance and separation.
Additional information on FOIA requests
Requests under the FOIA should be made through the appropriate agency. These include:
- Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and Joint Staff FOIA Requester Service Center (RSC). This RSC processes FOIA requests for records related to the OSD and Joint Staff, including the US Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) and specific OSD components. More information is available on the OSD and Joint Staff RSC website.
- Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-1, FOIA Office. The Army FOIA Office manages the FOIA Privacy Act in accordance with applicable laws and provides information to military members, Department of Defense (DoD) civilians, military family members, the American public, the Congress, and the news media. More information is available on the Army FOIA Office website.
- Department of the Navy FOIA Office. The Navy FOIA Office provides access to Department of the Navy's (to include the United States Marine Corps) documents through a citizen-centered services and a results-oriented FOIA program in accordance with all federal laws and Department of Justice, Defense, and Navy regulations. More information is available on the Navy FOIA Office website.
- Air Force FOIA. The Air Force FOIA website provides information and guidance on who can request records, where to send a FOIA request, how to make a FOIA or Privacy request, and the fees associated with a request for records. More information is available on the Air Force FOIA website.
- Coast Guard, Management Programs and Policy Division. The Coast Guard makes records available to the public to the greatest extent possible in keeping with the spirit of the FOIA while balancing the need to protect privacy and security interests. More information is available on the Management Programs and Policy Division website.