A recent case involving a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for public spatial data was recently decided. (Multi Ag Media v. USDA, No. 06-5231, D.C. Dist. Feb 15, 2008). The case involves a request for agricultural data from the Department of Agriculture for data related to farm subsidies. A portion of the request had been held back for privacy reasons pursuant to Exemption 6 of FOIA.
Although after much deliberation the court ultimately decided to release the information I was surprised to see how far the court was willing to go to find a “substantial privacy interest” in this case. The court apparently agreed with USDA that even the potential that data could be aggregated in such a way that someone could then do crop analysis that then might be used to determine a farm’s worth that may or not be owned by an individual is a privacy risk. That seems to create a high hurdle to overcome in future cases, at least in this circuit. (It is noteworthy for those in the industry that the court adds, almost as an aside, that it believes that the disclosure of GIS databases "only heightens these privacy concerns" because the information is set forth in photographs and maps)
I find it a significant leap forward from Forest Guardians v. FEMA, which was decided in the 10th Cir. in 2005. In that case, Forest Guardians was looking for electronic copies of GIS maps with all forms of data, but excluding names and addresses. However, it was clear to the court that the names and addresses could easily be obtained from the data that would be provided, in which case each such individual would be subject to variety of potential invasions of privacy regarding their finances.