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Service Member Privacy Versus Public Access to Information

As service members, you have the right to keep your personally identifiable information private. Meanwhile, the public has the right to access federal agency records. There are laws on both sides of this legal tug-of-war, protecting the rights of service members' privacy as well as the public's access to information.

  • Privacy Act of 1974 provides protections for the release of records from federal agencies that contain personally identifiable information. It blocks the release of these records without your written consent, unless one of 12 exceptions applies.
  • Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, allows the public to request access to various federal records. Federal agencies must make records available to the public on request, unless they fall within one of nine exemptions.

Know your privacy rights

The Privacy Act is a U.S. federal law that does the following:

  • 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).
  • 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
  • Grants you access to your service record
  • Provides you with the option to request the correction of your records  

Know the public's rights

Enacted in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, generally provides that any person has a right to obtain access to federal agency records, with some exceptions. The intent is to make federal agencies accountable to the public for their actions. It requires government agencies to:

  • Publish statements of its organizations, functions, rules, procedures, general policy, any changes made and how to get information
  • Index and make available statements of policy, manuals and instructions, final opinions and orders in cases, as well as indices for public inspection and copying
  • Release to the public information requested under FOIA, unless if falls under one of nine exemptions (including personal privacy, national security and law enforcement). 

Learn about FOIA requests

The type of information releasable to the public from federal records depends on whether a person requests information that FOIA allows or has authorization from you or your next of kin.

Without your authorization (or your next of kin's if you are deceased), the government can only release limited information from your official military personnel files to the public. Information they can release without an unwarranted invasion of privacy includes:

  • Name, photograph and service number
  • Dates and branch of service
  • Final duty status and final rank
  • Assignments and geographical locations
  • Military education level, awards and decorations
  • Transcript of courts-martial trials
  • Place of entrance and separation

With your authorization (or your next of kin's if you are deceased), a federal agency can release any information not available to the public under FOIA. The authorization must:

  • Be in writing
  • Specify what additional information or copies the services or National Personnel Records Center may release
  • Include your signature or the signature of your next of kin