[Ask an Archivist]: When to Restrict Personally Identifiable Information (PII)

Have a SNAP-related question for the archivists? Check out our anonymous submission form here.

Ask an Archivist Question:

“Do you have definitive guidelines you use for access restrictions when it comes to personally identifiable information, and if so, would you be willing to share them? As a new archivist, I would love to hear from more experienced archivists what items they restrict.”

Ask an Archivist Answers:

We definitely have access policies for a variety of our collections since we are a private archive. I would be willing to share those policies. Some are so specific and would not apply to all.

Certainly, policies that have been developed and vetted over the years need to be shared rather than reinventing the wheel. There also should be a mechanism for the researcher to challenge the policy to gain access.

Ellen Pierce
Director, Maryknoll Mission Archives

These aren’t definitive guidelines, but I’ve found Menzi Behrnd-Klodt’s Navigating Legal Issues in Archives to be incredibly helpful when thinking about these kinds of questions.  I would definitely recommend picking up a copy.  I would also keep in mind that beyond the laws related to personally identifiable information, there might be institution specific reasons to restrict some materials.  For example, at private colleges, board of trustees’ materials are often restricted for 25 years or more, while at public colleges and universities, minutes and other materials are frequently made available right away.

Rachel Grove Rohrbaugh
Archivist, Elizabethtown College

Presidential records as well as vice-presidential records created and/or received after January 20, 1981 are governed and preserved by the Presidential Records Act (PRA), as amended, and made publicly available through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). For the first five years after the end of an Administration, presidential records are generally exempt from public access of any kind, including FOIA (unless they have been previously placed in the public domain). During this period, only Congress, the courts, and the incumbent and former Presidents may have special access. 

For the next seven years and thereafter, anyone can request access to presidential records through the FOIA, but six PRA restrictions and eight FOIA exemptions can be applied to withhold information. Four PRA restrictions are exactly like FOIA exemptions. The restrictions unique to the PRA pertain to information about appointees to Federal office; and confidential communications requesting or submitting advice between the President and his advisors or between such advisors. 

After twelve years, the PRA restrictions are lifted and only FOIA exemptions may be applied, which pertain to information to protect national security; information about internal personnel rules and practices of an agency; information specifically exempt from disclosure by law; trade secrets and confidential business information; information that, if disclosed, would invade an individual’s personal privacy (e.g. PII); information compiled for law enforcement purposes; information concerning the supervision of financial institutions; and geological information on wells.  The appropriate restrictions and exemptions are cited for all closed information so researchers are fully informed about all materials being withheld.

Steven D. Booth
Archivist, Presidential Materials Division, U.S. National Archives

I do my best to balance privacy and access in a public university environment; restrictions are mostly in regard university archives. The obvious items that need to be restricted are easy to catch, socials, addresses, student records, etc. but I also run across human resources files as well as items from general counsel and other administrative correspondence that contain pii or are exceptions to Florida’s very broad public records law. There are exceptions and I do have to refer to counsel on unusual items we sometimes find. One solution to providing access is often providing a redacted copy if the rest of the information is valuable and public record. There are considerations there as well – such as the unfortunate scenario where though the pii is redacted, due to the nature of the record, the person or group can easily be identified potentially causing harm. In those cases, I may restrict the material and provide access via general counsel.

Sandra Varry
Heritage Protocol & University Archivist, 
Florida State University

This is a very complex set of issues. I don’t believe that the guidelines from one repository will necessarily fit another, so in a few paragraphs it will not be possible to do full justice to nuances, exceptions, special considerations, and variations among types of repositories (just to name a few influences on decisions to restrict). Let me confess that I am close to being an access absolutist; that is, I believe it is the archivists’ professional responsibility to have as little as possible in his/her collections or record groups be restricted and as much as possible be open to researchers—but please keep in mind that this is far from being a universal perspective.

In exploring the issues that must be considered when deciding upon restriction guidelines for PII, one of the first items is defining PII to begin with. PII does not have a universally accepted definition. To complicate matters further, what are considered PII today may not have been a concern 25 years ago—SS#s for example, which not that long ago were ubiquitous personal identifiers. One result is that collections with certain PII may have been open to research for decades and now become candidates for restriction. Is it appropriate to retrospectively restrict a collection? In addition, SS#s are published by the Federal government once an individual dies, in the Social Security Death Index; if a repository does wish to restrict access to SS#s it certainly won’t want to do so after a person’s demise—or likely demise, as with the US Census being public after 72 years.

Then there are certain restrictions imposed on certain repositories for certain records by Federal and state statutes. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act requires any archive in any school receiving any Federal funds to tightly restrict student educational records. Similarly, certain qualifying repositories are required to impose specific restrictions on patient records by the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. NB: if your repository doesn’t fall within FERPA or HIPAA guidelines you are not legally required to impose restrictions on such records, so the question becomes is the repository ethically bound to impose restrictions anyway? And on exactly which types of information?

Please consider too that there are several ways of protecting PII in collections if that is the repository’s decision. One, usually requiring extensive personnel resources, is redaction. Another, requiring many fewer resources, is to require all researchers using respective collections to sign a legal contract that s/he will never make accessible PII; that only aggregate data will be published.

Mark A. Greene
Former Director & Emeritus Senior Archivist, American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming

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