‘Privacy’ a bar to disclosure of electronic GIS maps by FEMA

‘Privacy’ a bar to disclosure of electronic GIS maps by FEMA

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Electronic maps maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency do not have to be given to a non-profit environmental group under the personal privacy exemption of the Freedom of Information Act, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver (10th Cir.) ruled recently. FEMA argued and the court agreed that releasing electronic versions of GIS maps could allow the group, Forest Guardians, to match mapping data with other data to deduce the names and addresses of policyholders under the National Flood Insurance Program. Policyholders’ identities are protected by Exemption 6 of the FOI Act, the court said.

Forest Guardians first requested the data in January 2001 to geographically trace how federally subsidized flood insurance affects endangered species in New Mexico floodplains. FEMA released paper copies of GIS maps that plotted the location of buildings on the San Juan, Animas, and Rio Grande floodplains and detailed whether they had been built after the surrounding community had bought into the flood insurance program. FEMA redacted the policyholders’ names and addresses from the paper maps, citing Exemption 6.

Forest Guardians’ second FOI Act request in April 2002 sought the same GIS maps in electronic format. FEMA refused to disclose them, arguing that electronic data would allow the group to deduce the insurance policyholders’ identities already deemed FOI Act-exempt. Forest Guardians sued, but a federal trial court found in FEMA’s favor, and Forest Guardians appealed.