@Info.Policy: To name or not to name? That is the question

Robert Gellman

Should names of federal employees be protected from public disclosure on privacy grounds? The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals recently sustained withholding, under the Freedom of Information Act, the names of IRS employees involved in an audit of a nonprofit association.

The case, Judicial Watch vs. IRS, was decided in January. The court was unable to find a public interest in disclosing the names and held that disclosure would be a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

I can find a public interest in disclosure quite easily. Traditional civil service policy holds that the names, job descriptions, grades and other job-related characteristics of federal employees are public information. That policy predated the FOIA by decades, and nothing in the FOIA or in the 1974 Privacy Act changed it.

The United States never wanted a cadre of nameless government functionaries. Why not? Among other reasons, because government employees are on the public payroll working for us, and nameless often means unaccountable. Treating the names of routine government employees as deserving of secrecy is not exactly a prescription for responsive service to the public.

In the current environment, can we really extend privacy to the name of a federal employee? The Supreme Court held years ago that home addresses of federal employees could be withheld, and that makes sense. You give up something when you work for the government, but not everything. Your personal life and your government job are two different things.

We can and should protect Social Security numbers, sick-leave records and other personal information of employees. But names?

What are the legal consequences of deciding that disclosure of the name of an employee who worked on a routine matter invades the employee's privacy? If an employee sues the IRS because his name was disclosed to coworkers who didn't need to know it, the agency could be in a tough spot. It already conceded that disclosure was a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy. Does a list of job assignments have to be restricted internally in the interest of employee privacy?

I could see withholding if there were reason to believe the employee would be in danger from public disclosure. No rational person would disclose to the world a list of undercover agents. Other specific reasons might also occasionally justify withholding a name. There was no hint in the case above, however, that the employees were under any possible threat.

How far will we carry the principle that the disclosure of a government employee's name is an invasion of privacy? Will FBI agents get anonymous credentials? Will we classify agency telephone books? Will government workers' e-mail addresses be completely numeric? Anybody out there want a secret police force?

I am all for privacy, but government accountability and openness count, too. If we are going to shield the name of a government employee who worked on a routine, noncriminal matter, we need to have a really good reason in each case.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@netacc.net.

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