Government invokes privacy exemption to conceal secrets

When the National Security Agency (NSA) didn’t want Edward Snowden’s emails to be made public, it found an unlikely ally in his privacy.

The government refused to give journalist Matthew Keys Snowden’s messages because of a federal law that protects privacy rights. Experts said that Snowden is not at all unique. From Osama bin Laden to the former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the government is using “privacy” as a reason to keep its secrets hidden.

“For an agency whose main job is to invade our privacy, using privacy as an excuse for not following the Freedom of Information Act is a very Orwellian thing for the NSA to do,” said Ryan Shapiro, a graduate student at MIT who often asks the NSA and other agencies for public records. “The fact that the NSA now says it wants to protect Edward Snowden’s privacy makes the irony even stronger.”

Privacy rules in the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act are often used by the federal government to turn down requests for records. The people who wrote the Freedom of Information Act of 1966 wanted to show how the government works, but they also wanted to protect the privacy of ordinary Americans and low-level government workers from “unwarranted invasion.”

Since these laws were passed, researchers and the government have been playing Whac-A-Mole with transparency. Instead of just making files public, government agencies often make up new reasons to keep them secret until Congress or the courts throw them out.

Along with a “deliberative process” exemption that lets an agency keep documents made as part of a decision-making process secret, the government often uses “privacy” as an excuse. People often use the exemption correctly to protect personnel or medical records. But sometimes, it covers up sensitive topics that the government would rather keep hidden. Snowden isn’t the only one who has done this.

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