A recent Illinois Appellate Court decision raises interesting questions about how provisions protecting “private information” in open records laws should be interpreted in a world in which a vast wealth of information about individuals is available publicly, including online. The case is an important reminder of the role that technology and other societal changes can have on the Illinois FOIA and other public access laws. In Timpone v. Illinois Student Assistance Commission , a requester sought data about recipients of a 2015 grant, the Illinois Monetary Award Program (MAP), including their names. The ISAC provided a significant amount of data to the requester, but withheld student names. It relied on the FOIA exception for “private information,” among others.
In withholding student names, ISAC cited the fact that the MAP grant is entirely need-based and students who apply for it must disclose financial details for themselves, their parents, and their spouses through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which is private. ISAC claimed that because of the wealth of public information about the financial status of individuals who receive MAP grants, releasing student names would inform the requester of the approximate income levels of the MAP recipients and their families. According to ISAC, such information is exempt under FOIA section 7(1)(b). That section of the FOIA exempts from disclosure “[p]rivate information,” which is defined to include “personal financial information.” 5 ILCS 7(1)(b) and 140/2(c-5).
Relying on a case from the 1990s in which the Appellate Court found that the version of the FOIA then in effect did not prohibit the disclosure of student names and addresses, the requester argued that student names are not, by themselves, private. Noting that “FOIA and privacy expectations were markedly different than they are now” in the 1990s, the court found the earlier case inapposite. At that time, “disclosing the names of . . . students would not have revealed any distinguishing information about those individuals,” but that is not the case anymore. As the court explained: “Given the detailed personal income information of MAP applicants and recipients that has been disclosed and is maintained on ISAC’s public website, we conclude that the further disclosure of the names of MAP grant recipients would invade the privacy of those individuals.”
This case illustrates the roles that technology and publicly available data about individuals can play in the interpretation of open records laws. Public bodies should always consider whether release of information that might not be exempt on its own might, combined with publicly available information, identify an individual in a way that violates the individual’s privacy.