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.

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

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36 Comments
Reality Check (profile) says:

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.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 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.

The Real Michael says:

Re: 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.

Anonymous Coward says:

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?

BernardoVerda says:

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…

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: 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.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: 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.

Anonymous Coward says:

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!

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

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