The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a legislative act designed to improve government transparency and allow the public to keep a check on excesses within the state.

It was originally put forward by Democratic Congressman John Moss in 1955 during the rise of the Cold War. The original intention was to stem the rise of secret government projects, but Moss found it difficult to garner support – especially from his peers. Almost every federal agency and department at the time opposed the bill, and the only sections of society that vigorously backed it were newspaper editors and journalists.

Nevertheless, the bill was enacted into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. It became far more relevant in 1974 during the Watergate scandal – when the administration was notoriously tight-lipped about wrongdoings.

After 1974, the FOIA was amended by Congress, which introduced many new requirements, timeframes, and sanctions for wrongly withheld information.

It’s been chopped and changed even further since. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan issued an executive order that made it easier to withhold sensitive information pertaining to FOIA requests. Liberals breathed a sigh of relief when these restrictions were rolled back by President Bill Clinton in 1996, who also declassified several documents from the Cold War.

In 1996, President Clinton signed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments – specifically to cater to the internet. This act required government agencies to make documents available in electronic format.

What does the Freedom of Information Act cover?

In a nutshell, the FOIA empowers you to request records from any federal agency. They’re legally bound to disclose information if it doesn’t fall under any of the following nine exemptions:

  1. Documents classified as secret which pertains to national defense or foreign policy
  2. Related to matters of internal personnel rules
  3. Information exempted by specific statutes e.g. the Critical Infrastructure Act of 2002 stopped the spread of information pertaining to actual, potential, or threatened interference of critical infrastructure (such as nuclear power plants, dams, and transportation networks)
  4. Trade secrets or confidential commercial information that has the potential to harm business interests
  5. An inter-agency or intra-agency memorandum / letter
  6. Information that might constitute a personal invasion of privacy, such as medical records
  7. Related to the operating conditions of financial institutions that are regulated by the   SEC
  8. Geological and geophysical information about gas and oil wells
  9. Data that’s compiled for law enforcement purposes, which released might:
  •   interfere with court proceedings
  •   deprive an individual his/her right to a fair trial
  •   could constitute an invasion of privacy
  •   has the potential to disclose the identity of a confidential source
  •   would uncover techniques and procedures for investigations
  •  could endanger an individual’s life or physical safety

Anyone can make an FOIA request – not just US citizens. However, before making one, the US government encourages people to search for the data online first. All federal agencies are required by law to post their records online and people can search for their topic here.

How do I make a Freedom of Information request?

Once you’ve decided that you need to submit the FOIA request, the process is actually quite straightforward. There’s no standard format you need to follow, but the request must be made in writing which means it can’t be done over the phone.

The first thing you need to do is identify the federal agency that will deal with your request. Here’s a list of all US government agencies that currently process FOIA requests.

Once you’ve ascertained the relevant department, the next step is to either send them a physical letter via post, email, or fax. Like stated earlier there’s no specific template which you must follow. If you’d still like some guidance about what exactly to write, then this page has some templates.

It’s also possible to submit FOIA requests via an Android or iOS app. These will also help you monitor the status of your application. Click here to download the right one for your device.

During the submission process you can also specify the format in which you’d like to receive the records. These can be printed or in electronic form. However you can’t ask for the agency to conduct research, analyze data, or answer specific questions.

How long do I have to wait?

The US government says that the time to fulfill requests “will vary depending on the complexity of the request and the backlog of requests already pending at the agency.”

Broadly speaking, all requests fall under 3 categories and will be dealt with in a particular timeframe:

  1. Simple requests that are processed in 39 days
  2. Complex requests that require 89 days to complete
  3. “Fast track” requests which need a month

There’s also a fee for complex requests. These are defined as those that require government employees to spend more than two hours digging for the information. Again, the exact fees is not stated publicly but is communicated to the requester on a case-by-case basis.

A “fast track” request is entertained when the requester has been ordered by a judge to appear before an immigration court and faces deportation. It is also applicable if a lack of expedited information could pose a threat to someone’s life.

What’s the process of appeal?

The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) was set up in 2007 with the explicit aim of resolving disputes between FOIA requesters and relevant federal agencies. Disputes arise when requesters feel that the information handed over is insufficient, irrelevant, and doesn’t meet the mark.

Requesters can ask for OGIS mediation at the following address:

8601 Adelphi Road College Park, MD 20740-6001
Twitter: @FOIA_Ombuds
E-mail: ogis@nara.gov
Web: www.ogis.archives.gov
Telephone: 202-741-5770
Facsimile: 202-741-5769
Toll-free: 1-877-684-6448

Freedom of Information requests in the UK

Access to public records in the UK was made possible by the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) 2000. Under the provisions of the act, public authorities are required to provide certain information about their activities. Members of the public are also allowed to request this information.

The act covers all public authorities in the England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Information about Scottish public authorities is subject to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

Under the tenets of the law, public authorities refers to government departments, local administrative bodies, the National Health System, schools, and the police. But it doesn’t extend to all organizations that receive public funding – such as charities and private companies that may be tasked by the government to engage in public activities.

The foundations of the Freedom of Information Act were laid in 1997 when the government sought to establish public support for more transparency and inclusivity in its working. That year the UK government published a white paper titled “Your Right to Know”, where it outlined the fundamental principles behind this ambitious new project.

“Openness is fundamental to the political health of a modern state. This White Paper marks a watershed in the relationship between the government and people of the United Kingdom. At last there is a government ready to trust the people with a legal right to information,” it noted.

And it seems like the act is bridging the trust deficit between citizens and the government. In a 2011 survey 81% of respondents agreed that the Freedom of Information Act had increased the public’s trust in government and government-funded organizations.

What does the Freedom of Information Act cover?

In the UK, members of the public can request all recorded information held by public authorities. These aren’t limited to just official documents such as memorandums but also include drafts, emails, notes, CCTV recordings, and audio conversations.

Here’s a list of all the public sector organizations that are legally bound to comply with requests. Anyone can ask for information – there’s no restrictions on nationality, age, or gender.

All FOI requests are maintained in a central database. Before submitting one, it’s advised to check whether your question has already been answered here.

How do I make a Freedom of Information request?

The sensible way to go about this is to first identify the organization that will deal with your specific request. Once that’s done, you’ll need to inform them in writing about your intent. This means queries will not be entertained over the phone. Requests can be sent via:

  1. Letter
  2. Email
  3. Fax

Things to include in the request

You should try to be as specific as possible when asking for the particular piece of information. Vague or unclear requests might take longer to process and incur costs. Within the written request you need to add:

  1. Your full name (try to replicate that on a government-issued ID)
  2. Your contact address including phone number
  3. A description of the information you seek

You can also ask the government for their reply in a specific format. These could be:

  1. Printed or electronic copies
  2. Audio
  3. Large text

The government aims to process all requests within 20 days. There’s no special categories – all FOI queries are dealt with in the exact same manner. The relevant department will let you know if there’s any delays – these usually happen if the request is complicated and may involve interdepartmental collaboration. In such a case it’s likely that your personal information will be shared within these departments too.

In the UK it’s also possible to view the information private organizations and the government hold about you. This became possible after the Data Protection Act of 1998 was promulgated into law.

The purpose of the Data Protection Act (DPA) is to make sure organizations respect personal information of citizens pertaining to ethnic backgrounds, political opinions, religious beliefs, sexual health, and criminal records. Flouting these regulations can lead to serious repercussions. The aim of the government is to make sure all personal data is used fairly, for specifically defined purposes, maintains accuracy, kept safe and secure, and for no longer than absolutely necessary.

It’s also mandatory that the information is not spread outside the European Economic Area, although it remains to be seen if this regulation changes once the UK completes Brexit.

Click here for a detailed guide about how to about making a request for personal information in the UK.

Can my FOI request be denied?

While the Freedom of Information Act is definitely worded to act in the public interest, there are still several scenarios where requests can be denied. Broadly speaking there are two forms of exemptions. “Absolute” exemptions apply to those requests where there’s no public interest attached. These are defined by:

  • Information that can be accessed by other means
  • Information that’s related to security matters
  • Information present in court orders
  • Where disclosure threatens parliamentary privilege
  • Information, if disclosed, would prejudice effective conduct of public affairs
  • Information which comes under the Data Protection Act
  • Information provided in confidence
  • When disclosing the information is incompatible with an EU obligation

The second type of exemption is referred to as a “qualified” exemption. This means that any request must be subjected to a public interest test – if it is in the public’s interest to release the information then the authority has the mandate to do so. Otherwise, it may choose to withhold. Within qualified exemptions, there are two sub-classes.

Class-based exemptions

  • Information that’s meant to be made public at a future date
  • Information that’s required as part of national security
  • Where secrecy needs to be maintained for public investigations and proceedings
  • Information that’s used for formation of government policy and ministerial communications
  • Information related to communication between the Royal Family
  • Information covered by professional legal privilege
  • Trade secrets

Harm-based exemptions

  • Prejudice the capability or effectiveness of security forces
  • Jeopardize international relations
  • Threaten relations between government administrations in the UK
  • Harm economic interests of the UK
  • Weaken law enforcement
  • Obstruct auditing functions of public departments
  • Inhibit the effective functioning of public affairs
  • Call into question individual safety
  • Disrupt commercial interests and affairs

Click here for a detailed guide about the circumstances under which a request can be denied. There’s an appeals process for those who feel their request was denied unfairly. If this applies to you then this page will help you through the process of filing an appeal.

There are usually no fees for filing FOI requests or appealing an existing request in the UK. However, some organizations might deem it appropriate to ask for monetary compensation if they feel the request for information is a particularly excruciating one and may require several man-hours to fulfill. This is dealt on a case-by-case basis.

Controversies

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair who was instrumental in ensuring the passage of the act later referred to it as “one of the biggest mistakes in my career”. Labour party members also criticized journalists who used the law to uncover facts and shed light on government wrongdoing. They argued that the act was meant for members of the public, and not by journalists to write “salacious stories”.

Some important facts that came into the limelight as a result of the law were:

  1. An understanding that 74 serving police officers in the Metropolitan Police had criminal records
  2. The UK supported the Israeli nuclear weapons program by selling it 20 tonnes of heavy water in 1958
  3. An undercover British torture programme existed in post-war Germany
  4. Ministers and MPs claimed thousands of pounds of taxi reimbursements as part of a £5.9 million travel expense bill.

A shocking report in The Guardian claims that journalists and whistleblowers can be arrested if they pass on information obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. These damning revelations only surfaced in May and have been universally condemned by freedom of speech organisations and some political parties such as the Liberal Democrats.

It’s unclear whether anyone has actually been incarcerated merely for revealing information that’s supposed to be public in the first place. But it might be a prudent approach to speak with a lawyer first if you do plan on going down this route in the UK.

Access to Information Act Canada

Canada’s version of open government, made possible by the Access to Information Act (AIA) of 1983, was signed into law by Pierre Trudeau, the father of current Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.

It was widely considered to be model legislation at the time and followed a wave of similar initiatives by Australia, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, and New Zealand.

According to the tenets of the Act, it’s possible for citizens to request access to information that’s currently held by any government institution in Canada. There are exemptions, but citizens retain the right to request for an independent review of the disclosure of this information.

After passing the AIA in 1983, the Canadian government promulgated a complementary set of laws called the Privacy Act in the same year. This was designed to protect individual privacy and to make sure both governments and corporations treated the data they held about citizens very carefully. Under the Privacy Act, citizens can request for a record of the personal data that’s held by companies and government agencies.

How do I make an Access to Information request?

The first thing to do is figure out which government body or institution holds the information you seek. There’s more than 250 such bodies and the list is given here.

Once that’s done, it’s possible to apply for the request online. This link will help you through the process, and it’s applicable for both Access to Information requests as well as Privacy Act requests.

If you would prefer to physically mail a form instead in order to get proof of delivery, then the government of Canada has a format that it prefers to work with. The proper structure for Access to Information requests is given here. For Privacy Act requests, you can use this link.

Requests under the Access to Information involve a fee of $5. There’s no fee for personal data requests.

If you do decide to write a letter, it’s advised that you keep it short, succinct, and to the point. Include details but don’t go overboard to make it complicated. Think of the person who will eventually read and process your request – they probably don’t have a good idea of what you need so make their job easier.

It’s preferable if you include:

  1. Your full name (try to replicate that on a government-issued ID)
  2. Your contact address including phone number

The Canadian government aims to respond to all requests in 30 days. However, only legal residents and citizens of the country can make these requests.

Can my request be denied?

Despite Canada’s status as a liberal, democratic state there’s actually a lengthy list of reasons for your access to information request to be withheld. The major ones are listed below:

  • If the information was obtained in confidence from a foreign government
  • If it affects inter-provincial coordination and harmony
  • If it’s related to military strategy or defence
  • Talks about military procurement strategies
  • Information related to diplomatic correspondence
  • If it allows subversive or hostile activities against Canada
  • If it prevents smooth functioning of democracy

The entire text, written in legal vernacular which may be difficult to digest for some is outlined here.

Is there a process of appeal?

The Canadian government funds and maintains an independent office of the “Information Commission of Canada.” The job of this department is to mediate and investigate complaints arising from federal institutions’ handling of information requests.

This is a non-binding office – meaning its recommendations are not legally enforceable – but it does have a strong mandate and investigative powers to get to the root of each and every complaint.

If you wish to lodge a complaint, you may do so here. Once the Information Commissioner receives your complaint, it will carefully analyze the facts from both sides. Once it has done so, it’ll make a critical evaluation of the data and put forward recommendations for a further course of action.

There are no fees for lodging complaints.

Can I search for previous requests?

Yes, and this is a recommended step before you file a request of your own. A complete database of all Access to Information Act requests is maintained here.

It’s also possible that your application for the right to information be denied if it has already been addressed before. So search before you request.

Freedom of Information requests in Australia

The Australian version of the right to information, known as the Freedom of Information Act 1982, allows anyone from anywhere in the world to access public records held by government bodies in Australia. If you’d like to obtain a copy of the act including the amendments since passed, then this link will help.

There’s a complementary set of laws which deal with personal data held by the government and private companies. This is covered under the Privacy Act of 1988. People filing requests under this act can request for a copy of their personal data that’s stored with these agencies.

How do I make a Freedom of Information request?

Before filing a request, it’s recommended that you narrow down the government body that’s best equipped to deal with your query. They’re legally bound to respond to you, so don’t worry about being frozen out.

This link will give you a list of public authorities that fall under the purview of the Freedom of Information Act. There’s 2,667 of them so make sure you find the one that’s most relevant.

Once you’ve identified the agency and are ready to submit the request, follow these steps:

  1. Put the request in writing. Most government agencies will have a web form but it’s also possible to send a letter. The address for each will be stated on their website and/or Facebook page.
  2. In the letter, make sure you state clearly that it is a request for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act.
  3. Make a clear and concise application. The Australian government doesn’t have a recommended template but it does request members of the public to outline the information you require and refrain from verbose explanations.
  4. Include your contact information – this could be an email address or physical home/office address in order for the department to get back to you.

There are no fees of any kind involved and the government usually processes all requests within 30 days. It’ll let you know, in writing, if there are any delays and if it needs more time.

Can my request be denied?

The Australian government reserves the right to deny requests filed under the Freedom of Information act. There’s actually an extensive list of possible reasons why this might happen. Some of these are given in this list:

  1. Documents affecting national security
  2. Cabinet proceedings
  3. Information that might inhibit law enforcement or public safety
  4. Documents in which secrecy provisions apply
  5. Documents obtained in confidence
  6. Documents that might result in contempt of court
  7. Information disclosing trade secrets or commercially valuable information
  8. Electoral rolls
  9. Information that might harm relations with Commonwealth states
  10. Commonwealth’s financial and property interests
  11. Business affairs
  12. Personal privacy

For a complete list of reasons, click here.

If a government agency refuses your request, then they’re legally bound to proffer reasons for their decision. This means you’ll obtain an explanation of the exact exemption that applies.

There’s also a public interest test that each request is subjected to, which means the agency in question will evaluate whether it’s in the best interests of the public to make the information available. If they deem that it’s not then it’s likely that the request will be withheld.

What’s the appeal process?

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner is legally mandated to deal with the appeals process.

If you think that your request has been denied unfairly, then it’s possible to involve them in a thorough review. You must make this request in writing at the following address:

GPO Box 5218, Sydney NSW 2001
Fax: +61 292849666
Email: enquiries@oaic.gov.au

If you’d like to meet someone in person then you can visit the following address:

Level 3, 175 Pitt Street, Sydney, NSW 2000

The written application should include a copy of the notice of decision (that’s the letter that the government would have written to you) as well as your contact information. Please also add the reasons why you are objecting to the decision. There are no fees involved at this stage either.

Any decision of the Australian Information Commissioner is non-binding – meaning it’s not mandatory for the government to accept the recommendations. However, all decisions will be transparent and available for public access. For an analysis of your review rights, click here.

The Australian government doesn’t publish a list of all previous requests made under the Freedom of Information Act but the Right to Know Foundation, a nonprofit based in Australia, has scraped together the data to make a repository. It’s accessible here.

How do I prevent my data from being exposed?

It’s almost impossible these days to remain completely hidden while still enjoying the fruits of the internet, but there are some steps you can take to limit the personal info that’s available online.

These are important because companies usually hold an obscene amount of data on their customers (including the likes of you and I), and aren’t too fussy about sharing it with their respective governments. Some countries actually enforce legislation that makes it mandatory for companies to fork over private details, while others employ a slightly more discreet approach.

If an individual submits an FOI request for your information, it could compel the government to hand it over. That’s a troubling thought.

The best way to minimize this risk is to limit the information companies hold about you in the first place.

1. Use a VPN

Short for Virtual Private Network, a VPN encrypts all the data flowing to and from your device and tunnels it via a remote server so that your location remains hidden. Users who opt for a VPN are safe from any prying eyes such as the NSA or opportunistic hackers. Our guide to the best VPN services in 2017 provides a comprehensive overview of the one that’s best suited for your needs.

2. Opt out of standard data collection procedures

When you sign up with an internet service provider, you’ll be asked whether you’d like to receive promotional emails and offers. It’s the same for virtually any online product you browse – whether it’s media, ecommerce, or education. Don’t click ‘yes’ when prompted to input your email address for further information – such forms collect your personal data and store it for bookkeeping purposes.

You might also have to take it a step further to opt out of things like targeted advertisments, where ISPs track your browser cookies to establish preferences and bombard you with invasive links.

Here’s an example of how to do that for Comcast subscribers in the US. If you’re not a Comcast user, you’ll have to check the procedure with your local ISP.

It’s also a good idea to instruct your web browser not to allow websites to track your browsing data. In Chrome, for example, you’ll have to click on Settings > Advanced Settings > Privacy > Send a “Do Not Track” request with your browsing traffic.

See also: How to clear cookies in Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Microsoft Edge.

3. Use properly mixed Bitcoins

Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum are making headlines these days for their soaring value but it’s also important to realize that they have utility value far beyond a shrewd investment.

Bitcoin transactions are recorded on the blockchain ledger but it’s possible to use third-party services to remain guarded. You will need to download the encrypted Tor browser to carry out such transactions. Here’s a step-by-step process that’ll take you through the procedure in intricate detail.

Most VPN services now accept Bitcoin as do other web products – so if it’s anonymity you’re looking for, Bitcoin is a safe bet.

For an in-depth analysis of how to remain completely hidden and anonymous online, our guide is an excellent resource of handy information on the topic. To take this a step further, we also recommend you read our list of the 75 free online tools that’ll help safeguard your security and privacy at all times.

Open Government” by Descrier licensed under CC by 2.0