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U.S. EPA’s Collection of Private Information for Clean Water Act Enforcement Shielded From Freedom of Information Act Disclosure by Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals

As government agencies collect private information in increasingly large and sophisticated data caches, that data remains susceptible to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In considering whether a collection of electronic data could be shielded from disclosure under FOIA’s exemption for data that would invade a substantial individual privacy interest, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the fact the data was already publicly available piecemeal in disparate locations did not mean it must be disclosed in consolidated, searchable format. Rather, the court recognized private parties’ interest in controlling dissemination of their personal information in formats likely to bring increased public scrutiny. [American Farm Bureau Federation v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ___F.3d___, Case No. 15-1234 (8th Cir. Sept. 9, 2016).]

The court’s analysis here recognizes the immense value to competitors and activist groups in obtaining data from public agencies in a consolidated electronic format that can easily be mined, and that private parties have an interest in protecting their information from disclosure in this form. This same analysis will hopefully be extended to private parties seeking to prevent FOIA disclosure, under Exemption 4, of sensitive trade secrets or commercial financial information collected by the government.

(Deborah Quick)