Court stops privacy for livestock database

The Agriculture Department has suspended indefinitely the time until a database for its National Animal Identification System (NAIS) would become subject to Privacy Act safeguards.

USDA had planned to make the records confidential effective June 9 but announced the postponement in the Federal Register June 10.

The change was the result of a restraining order sought by freelance journalist Mary-Louise Zanoni against USDA in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. On June 4, the court ordered the department to suspend its effective date for applying Privacy Act safeguards to the records system, Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer said in a notice dated June 6.

The dispute concerns access to files containing the names of farmers, ranchers and livestock companies. Data about their premises, locations and livestock movements are stored in the National Premises Information Repository, which is the initial step toward NAIS.

Zanoni filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the list of contacts in the database, but USDA said some of those records were not subject to disclosure under FOIA, according to the complaint. To keep the records available while she continues to fight for the right to access them, Zanoni filed for a temporary restraining order to prevent USDA from making the database a confidential system of records.

Zanoni is also challenging USDA’s authority to apply the Privacy Act to the database and other systems associated with NAIS, according to the complaint.

If the department designates the database a Privacy Act system of records, it would prevent public access to the information without authorization, a password and a PIN, USDA said in a Federal Register notice dated April 30. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is developing the voluntary animal ID program, would be able to share the data with federal and state officials during an incident or for investigations. In addition, individuals could ask whether the system contains information about them or their premises and obtain information about data pertaining to them. APHIS has received information for the database from the public and from businesses, USDA said.

When it is implemented, the system would help producers and animal health officials respond quickly and effectively to animal disease events, USDA said. The goal is to have the data necessary to trace all animals associated with a disease incident within 48 hours in order to limit its spread and reduce its effect..

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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