WASHINGTON, D.C., September 12, 2016 — The Environmental Protection Agency has violated the personal privacy of tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers, according to a unanimous ruling issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
The ruling in American Farm Bureau Federation and National Pork Producers Council vs. EPA concerned the federal agency’s 2013 release to three environmental groups of a vast compilation of spreadsheets containing personal information about farmers and ranchers who raise livestock and poultry in 29 states. The case also related to similar personal information from farmers and ranchers in seven additional states that had yet to be released. The information included the names of farmers, ranchers and sometimes other family members, home addresses, GPS coordinates, telephone numbers and emails. EPA claimed that it was required to disclose the information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“This was an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy by a federal agency in violation of law,” said AFBF General Counsel Ellen Steen. “The court’s decision is a vindication of the right of farm families to control their own personal information. Farmers and ranchers have a strong privacy interest in their personal information, including their home address, even when they live and work on the farm.”
Farm families usually live on the farm and the court took note that EPA’s disclosures in this case could facilitate unwanted contact and harassment of farmers and ranchers by the FOIA requestors and others. According to Steen, “this case assures us that individuals still have a privacy interest in their personal information. The fact that government agencies may have that information and even store it on the Internet does not eliminate the individual’s privacy interest.” According to the court, “EPA’s release of the complete set of data on a silver platter, so to speak, basically hands to the requesters a comprehensive database of their own, whatever their motives might be.”
“EPA now has to ‘recall’ all of the personal information it unlawfully released, but unfortunately that information has now been in the hands of the FOIA requestors for three years, and many feel that the damage is done,” Steen said. “AFBF will continue to work to ensure that personal information about farmers and ranchers is not disclosed by EPA.”