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Private group allowed to buy federal inmate information

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Private group allowed to buy federal inmate information 04/06/98 OREGON--Commercial Information Systems (CIS), which compiles public information for resale online…

Private group allowed to buy federal inmate information

04/06/98

OREGON–Commercial Information Systems (CIS), which compiles public information for resale online to governmental, business and other clients, including The (Portland) Oregonian, may purchase database information on federal inmates from the Federal Bureau of Prisons under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal District Court judge in Portland ruled in mid-March.

The court rejected efforts by the government to invoke the privacy exemptions to the FOI Act to protect requested information from the agency’s centralized database, noting that the Bureau of Prisons routinely provides the requested information on individual prisoners identified by name or social security numbers.

In May 1995, CIS asked the bureau for several kinds of information on all federal inmates. It amended its request to seek only information that the agency advised that it typically makes available on individual inmates: name, sex, race, birthdate, FBI number, prison register number, court docket number, offense, sentencing information, location of confinement, mandatory release date and judicial district of release.

In January 1997, the information group sued for the database.

The Bureau of Prisons argued that using its computer capabilities to delete other, exempt information in the database, such as social security numbers, would be “creating” a record, a task that is not required under the FOI Act. But the court said that mere deletion of information from a computer file does not constitute creation of a new record.

The court told the bureau it could not invoke the law enforcement privacy exemption (Exemption 7(C)) because the database was compiled for the administrative purpose of tracking prisoners within the system, not for law enforcement purposes.

The general privacy exemption (Exemption 6) also would not protect the information, the court said, because the public interest in the records, although “insubstantial,” outweighed a “nonexistent personal privacy interest” in a centralized compilation of post- conviction public information.

The court also rejected governmental claims that disclosure would result in a host of overburdensome requests. The court said the FOI Act allows agencies “to avoid disclosure” where a search would significantly interfere with its automated information system. It also noted that the act provides for recoupment of fees for difficult searches. Otherwise, the act requires disclosure of information that does not fall within an exemption, the court said. (Commercial Information Systems v. Federal Bureau of Prisons; Requestor’s Counsel: Thomas Rask, Charles Williamson, Portland)