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If I am correctly informed, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) entitles any EU and EEA citizen to have right of access of any data stored about them (and non-EU/EEA citizens such access to data stored about them by organizations inside the EU/EEA). This clearly includes recommendation letters which in some form or another must be linked to their identity.

This probably changes the signaling value of recommendation letters so this should be of interest to both reference letter writers and applicants.

A side question would be whether this includes reference letters written before the GDPR went into force.

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    Member states can enact law that under certain conditions restricts the right to access, see in particular Article 23, 1(i). That is, your rights may be restricted when it would interfere with the rights of other persons. Disclosing a letter of recommendation, for example, might infringe with the right of the letter writer to privacy (or perhaps of that of other people mentioned in the letter). – Pieter Naaijkens May 25 '18 at 13:04
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    See also ico.org.uk/for-organisations/…, in particular the section "What should I do if the data includes information about other people" – Pieter Naaijkens May 25 '18 at 13:05
  • In many jurisdictions, you always had the right to do so. But it would always be hugely in your interest to waive your rights to access them... – xuq01 May 29 '18 at 0:47
  • The GDPR only applies if data is processed in an automatic way or is stored in a filing system. Does a professor's messy desk constitute a filing system? On a more serious note, the GDPR provides that the right of access "shall not adversely affect the rights and freedoms of others.". The right to privacy of the letter-writer is adversely affected if you obtain a copy, but I'm not sure of the precise details and whether this counts or not. – Tom van der Zanden Jun 24 '18 at 20:04
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In the UK, most recently, reference letters during an employment recruitment process have potentially been available to the candidate for whom the letter has been written.

Bound to be the same for academic references.

No obvious reason for this opportunity to be curtailed by the coming into force of GDPR, quite the contrary.

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    When you say "potentially been available" do you mean that there is an option for letter writers to keep their letters private? Or that a candidate always has the opportunity to see their reference letters if desired? – Kimball May 25 '18 at 13:29
  • @Kimball The previous state in the UK was the Data Protection Act (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_Protection_Act_1998) which allowed access to your own personal data, as long as it was "reasonable" to search for, and allowed charging a reasonable fee (the standard seemed to be £10). Under typical circumstances, this would be most of the content of a letter of reference for a university, but possibly not all of it(the personal data of any other people in the letter still needed to be protected). – origimbo May 25 '18 at 14:37
  • @Kimball not aware that referees could request that their letter be kept confidential from the candidate they write about; yes, by potentially, I mean a candidate may request to have access to reference letters written on their account, if they wish to do so, under the Data Protection Act 1998 indeed – G-E May 25 '18 at 14:39
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    @G-E I was thinking more along the lines of the US system, where it's common for applicants to waive their rights to view the letters (and the letter writer should see that the candidate has waived their rights). – Kimball May 25 '18 at 14:49
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    @Kimball For the avoidance of ambiguity, the right to view and correct one's personal data isn't something someone can permanently opt out of, either under the GDPR, or the previous version. It's just something you can choose not to exercise currently (think 2nd amendment rather than Miranda). – origimbo May 28 '18 at 17:27

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