Thursday, March 06, 2008

Privacy or Public's Right To Know?

USDA faced that question back in the 1990's. A public interest group, Environmental Working Group, had requested records from ASCS (now FSA) on the people getting payment. We initially denied the request based on the Privacy Act of 1974. (I well remember when that was enacted, the Act required that before someone could be required to give information, you had to describe the legal basis for the requirement, the uses to be made of the info, and estimate the amount of time required. In brief, all the fine print you can see on IRS 1040's. It was a major pain to figure out how to get that stuff in all the forms the agency used.)

But, we eventually lost the case in the Appeals Court. Turned out our assumptions back in 1974 were wrong--data wasn't covered by the Privacy Act (except Social Security numbers and a bit of other data) so our IT shop had to figure out how to give the data to EWG in a usable form while leaving out the SSN's--they succeeded, and the rest is history, as you can see in the EWG farm database.

Now USDA has lost another appeal on other data. I'm not clear on the files covered, but might be the basic acreage data--the location and acreage of farms and fields and the yearly report of planted acreages.

It's nice to know how realistically the courts view agriculture:

"The appeals court noted that disclosure of crop information may compromise an individual's privacy interest since not all farms are owned by large corporations. However, in this instance, the court found that this was not a valid concern.

"We conclude that the public interest in disclosure of the Compliance file and GIS database outweighs the personal privacy interest...
It's not EWG asking this time, but Multi Ag Media LLC, which seems to own some magazines for dairymen. The decision is here.

No comments: