FBI Stops Responding To The Most Prolific FOIA Filer, Because He Might Actually Learn Something

from the he's-so-effective-that-they'd-like-him-to-stop dept

Mother Jones has an interesting profile of Ryan Shapiro, a punk rocker turned animal rights activist turned MIT PhD student, who is officially the "most prolific" filer of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the FBI. At a high point, he was filing an average of two per day. In fact, he filed so many FOIA requests so successfully, that the FBI is now refusing to respond and is giving the courts a secret explanation which they won't share.
The FBI claims that it cannot discuss the case in open court "without damaging the very national security law enforcement interests it is seeking to protect." Instead, it has filed a secret declaration outlining its case. "This is an especially circular and Kafkaesque line of argument," Shapiro counters. "The FBI considers it a national security threat to make public its reasoning for considering it a national security threat to use federal law to request information about the FBI's deeply problematic understanding of national security threats."
The FBI is basically arguing that because Shapiro is filing so many requests, he might actually be able to pull enough info together from so many different responses, that it would reveal stuff that wouldn't have been revealed if it had been found in a single FOIA request. In other words, Shapiro is better at this game than the FOIA censors, figuring out ways to get a variety of information that, when put together, is actually kind of useful.

Part of the trick, apparently, is getting a ton of people to agree to sign "privacy waivers" so he can request the FBI's info on those people, which the FBI wouldn't reveal otherwise.
When he started using privacy waivers, Shapiro realized he was on to something. Suppose you and I volunteered for the animal rights group PETA. If Shapiro requested all PETA-related FBI documents, he might get something back, but any references to us would be blacked out. If he requested documents related to us, he'd probably get nothing at all. But if he filed his PETA request along with privacy waivers signed by us, the FBI would be compelled to return all PETA documents that mention us—with the relevant details uncensored.

Shapiro began calling up old friends and asking for waivers. Coming of age amid the 1990s punk scene, he'd been drawn to animal rights causes and took part in their actions. He walked into foie gras facilities to film sick and injured ducks, several of which he rescued, and locked himself to the doors of fur salons. And while he no longer does such things, he has kept in touch with people who do.

Armed with signed privacy waivers, he sent out a few experimental requests—he calls them "submarine pings"—and when the FBI returned more than 100 pages on a close friend, he knew he'd struck gold. The response included pages of information that Shapiro had requested previously, but that the FBI had claimed didn't exist. Using case details from those documents and a handful of additional waivers, he filed a new set of requests.
Later in the article, Shapiro admits that as he got more and more responses, it certainly allowed him to fill in many blanks (and also point him to where to file other requests). This, it seems, is exactly what the FBI fears the most: Shapiro has outsmarted them. While, normally, FOIA responses are done in a manner to limit what information is shared and to never, ever suggest a slightly different query that might be useful, it appears Shapiro has more or less figured out a way around that, in part via bulk requests which lead down other paths of inquiry. No wonder the FBI has stopped responding. Shapiro just plays the game better than they do, and they're used to a world where the house always wins.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    icon
    RyanNerd (profile), Nov 18th, 2013 @ 11:58am

    FOIA are a waste of time

    I suppose if you get a group together each submitting a FOIA request for differt stuff and then put all the pieces of the puzzle together you may find something interesting. As it is now all you get is a big fat [REDACTED] paper where there are more lines of black marker than there are words.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Me, Nov 18th, 2013 @ 12:09pm

    Government transparency is essential to a functioning democracy. Government employees, whether at the NSA or the FBI (and others), who object to fulfilling FOIA requests are enemies of the state and should be prosecuted and jailed.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 18th, 2013 @ 12:19pm

    Re:

    "Government transparency is essential to a functioning democracy. Government employees, whether at the NSA or the FBI (and others), who object to fulfilling FOIA requests are enemies of the state and should be prosecuted and jailed."

    I agree with you but the vast majority of America is literally asleep or just flat out does not care. These problems can now only be solved by ending lives. I would like to believe I am wrong and overly negative but I do not believe so.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 18th, 2013 @ 12:23pm

    My company fired me because I was learning things

    My company fired me because I learned too much doing my job every day. That made me too efficient, being able to do things in half the time it took me when I first started.

    It's a perfectly reasonable thing to do though, I mean who wants a more efficient employee with years of experience when they can just hire someone new to do less for the same pay?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    identicon
    Andrew Lee, Nov 18th, 2013 @ 12:48pm

    World Record?

    This guy should get in contact with Guinness World Records for holder of most redacted documents.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 18th, 2013 @ 1:02pm

    so when is this actual law going to stop being a law, then? if the excuse of interfering with national security or similar can be used, how long before there is no such thing as a 'FOIA' request law at all? this excuse is used a hell of a lot already. i bet it will be used even more now!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    Quinn Wilde, Nov 18th, 2013 @ 1:06pm

    It pays to look both ways before crossing irony street

    For today's tangible dose of irony, note that this is pretty much a straight up admission that large collections of innocuous looking data can add up to more positive information than anyone would want to give away.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 18th, 2013 @ 1:10pm

    Re:

    "so when is this actual law going to stop being a law, then?"

    I'm sorry, the answer to that question is classified.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 18th, 2013 @ 1:13pm

    People, it's called the Freedom of Information Act, it's not the Learning of Information Act. Information can't be free if it gets inside someone's head instead of being on many different pieces of paper. Actually, why not charge this guy with information theft? He's stealing FBI information with all that illegal brain copying!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 18th, 2013 @ 1:14pm

    He better watch out for the CFAA. I mean he is basically hacking the FBI using a denial of service attack. If he's filing those FOIA requests in electronically or typing them up on a computer, I'm sure they can get him on a CFAA violation.


    Then beware of the added racketeering, espionage, and other completely legit claims that may get added on just to make sure he does jail time.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 18th, 2013 @ 1:25pm

    His next step...

    should be to start training other people (lots of other people) in his techniques.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 18th, 2013 @ 1:40pm

    When the government starts to lose the game, they flip the table and stop playing.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    icon
    Gwiz (profile), Nov 18th, 2013 @ 1:51pm

    Re: It pays to look both ways before crossing irony street

    +10 insightful

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    icon
    art guerrilla (profile), Nov 18th, 2013 @ 2:00pm

    so, in short...

    ...the gummint is fine with FOIA requests, as long as they don't reveal anything; once you find the magic handshake to reveal actual gummint (OUR) bidness, than *that* is problematic...

    got it...
    (message: it ain't YOUR gummint, citizen-scum)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    icon
    Chargone (profile), Nov 18th, 2013 @ 2:14pm

    Re:

    'Course, the public has that option too. They're just the one's stuck with the cleanup afterwards, and thus less keen to use it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Nov 18th, 2013 @ 2:34pm

    Re: Re:

    the vast majority of America is literally asleep


    But literally only at night.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    icon
    McCrea (profile), Nov 18th, 2013 @ 2:41pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Except, literally now means figuratively.

    http://www.salon.com/2013/08/22/according_to_the_dictionary_literally_now_also_means_fi guratively_newscred/

    Webster’s second definition of literally is, “in effect; virtually.”

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Nov 18th, 2013 @ 2:47pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    So how are we to literally say "literally" now?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    icon
    Anonymouse Coward (profile), Nov 18th, 2013 @ 3:50pm

    Re: His next step...

    and the following step should be to diversify into training on how to beat lie detectors.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    icon
    Reality Check (profile), Nov 18th, 2013 @ 3:57pm

    Re: FOIA are a waste of time

    "I suppose if you get a group together each submitting a FOIA request for different stuff and then put all the pieces of the puzzle together you may find something interesting."

    And that, dear sir, is exactly what he was doing.. Multiple cross references to the same information, and each one redacted slightly different was filling in the blanks.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    icon
    That One Guy (profile), Nov 18th, 2013 @ 4:20pm

    Re:

    Why would they ever bother to repeal it, it serves the purpose of making them look 'transparent' to the public, and if they ever feel like ignoring a FOIA request they can just 'forget' it, and should the one who made the request lawyer up, they just send a document 99% redacted.

    The idea behind FOIA requests are good, allowing the public to find out what the government, who is supposed to be working for the public, is doing, the problem comes with how easy it is for the government to claim 'classified/state secrets' to avoid answering anything that might make them look bad.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    icon
    That One Guy (profile), Nov 18th, 2013 @ 4:24pm

    Re: It pays to look both ways before crossing irony street

    Someone seriously needs to give this a first word, it absolutely nails the 'metadata is still valuable in large enough quantities' argument.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 18th, 2013 @ 4:38pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    It's easy. 'Literally' literally means "literally", literally .

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    icon
    PopeRatzo (profile), Nov 18th, 2013 @ 7:52pm

    Re: It pays to look both ways before crossing irony street

    #1 Internet Comment of the Day.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    icon
    PopeRatzo (profile), Nov 18th, 2013 @ 7:54pm

    Re: Re: His next step...

    Or training on how to give FBI officials lie detector tests.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    icon
    Bergman (profile), Nov 19th, 2013 @ 2:33am

    Re: FOIA are a waste of time

    FOIA requests and subpoenas are often worded in very similar ways when it comes the information you must produce. I bet the FBI would be less than amused if they got back a heavily redacted document, but the funny thing is that doing so is equally legal.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
    identicon
    The Real Michael, Nov 19th, 2013 @ 8:51am

    Re:

    What's the purpose of having FOIA requests when the info is either heavily redacted or access is curtailed on a mere whim? The things these agencies get away with on a routine basis would be considered illegal/unconstitutional if done by an ordinary citizen, which makes them seem more the order of an organized crime syndicate on steroids, hiding behind a federal emblem, acting with virtual legal immunity.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
    identicon
    IonOtter, Nov 19th, 2013 @ 9:30am

    Re: FOIA are a waste of time

    Apparently you didn't even read the article. They *are* effective, and NOT a waste of time.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    icon
    nasch (profile), Nov 19th, 2013 @ 10:59am

    Re: Re:

    the problem comes with how easy it is for the government to claim 'classified/state secrets' to avoid answering anything that might make them look bad.

    I wonder how well it would work for the agency to just send the document to the court under seal, and a judge decides, without any input from the executive, what needs to be redacted.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    icon
    nasch (profile), Nov 19th, 2013 @ 11:04am

    Re: Re: His next step...

    and the following step should be to diversify into training on how to beat lie detectors.

    Why would he need to beat a lie detector?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
    icon
    McCrea (profile), Nov 19th, 2013 @ 11:17am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    I propose "literally, in the strictest sense."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Nov 19th, 2013 @ 1:15pm

    Re: Re: Re: His next step...

    Everyone who might be subject to a lie detector test needs to know how to beat it -- it's not a rare occurrence for it to indicate you're lying when you're not. The only way to protect yourself is to game it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 20th, 2013 @ 5:04am

    Is this guy doing better than congress?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
    icon
    BernardoVerda (profile), Nov 24th, 2013 @ 5:11pm

    Re: My company fired me because I was learning things

    The really sad thing is that I'm inclined to actually believe your story.

    I've seen stuff like this before -- new hires hiding the fact that they already know how to use the new system because the manager is clearly threatened by the possibility (despite being hired precisely because they'd taken training courses), people being sabotaged by co-workers because they were "too" competent, etc...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35.  
    identicon
    ebbonnie, Nov 25th, 2013 @ 10:54am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Now

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This