FBI Claims Drone Impact Assessment That Was Redacted In Full Six Months Ago Suddenly Can't Be Located

from the federal-bureau-of-(deliberate)-ineptitude dept

The FBI’s assessment of its drones’ impact on the privacy of Americans has never been made public. It’s been nearly a decade since it first deployed drones, and the agency has yet to provide anything on the subject. FOIA requests (there are several out there) have been greeted with nothing — every single page withheld under the government’s go-to exception, b(5).

Now, it’s telling FOIA clearinghouse MuckRock that its obfuscatory efforts have buried the documents so deep even the FBI doesn’t know where its Privacy Impact Assessment is.

Six months ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation refused to release its plans to tackle privacy risks posed by drone surveillance. Now the agency claims it can’t track them down at all. So does the one Justice Department office responsible for making sure such reports get filed in the first place.

As Shawn Musgrave of MuckRock points out, the FBI’s continued secrecy runs contrary to both the FOIA and its own obligations to the general public in terms of its surveillance programs’ impact on the American public.

By design… PIA reports are meant for public consumption. They are supposed to candidly outline potential privacy risks for a given piece of software, data collection initiative or other technology, as well as the steps taken to address such risks. And unless an agency presents a good case otherwise, PIAs are supposed to be published online.

MuckRock refiled its previously-rebuffed FOIA request, adding a demand for any internal memos regarding the FBI’s decision to not only withhold this impact assessement in full, but its refusal to post its PIAs online per standard operating procedure. It sent the same request to the Office of Privacy and Civil Liberties — the oversight agency tasked with ensuring agencies like the FBI don’t cut the public out of the loop by withholding required impact assessments. The OPCL also had no idea where this document — that it is charged with obtaining and holding — might have gone.

Last week, the Justice Department confirmed that neither the FBI nor OPCL had been able to find anything despite “an adequate, reasonable search for such records.”

So… did the FBI toss the troublesome document into the nearest shredder (as if it isn’t stored online somewhere within its internal network)? Or is it simply uninterested with fulfilling the minimal requirements of its accountability to the public? The latter appears to be the likeliest answer. In an update to MuckRock’s original post about the MIA PIA, Shawn Musgrave reports that the DOJ has issued a statement suggesting MuckRock go fuck itself try the same thing that resulted in zero released pages six months ago.

Two hours after publication and in the wake of three FOIA requests, the Justice Department declined to clarify whether the FBI has analyzed potential privacy risks posed by its drones. “The questions you raised are best addressed through FOIA,” wrote Peter Carr, a Justice Department public affairs specialist, in reply to an email asking if the FBI had filed drone privacy impact assessments, “and it is my understanding that you sought similar information already through our FOIA office.”

The Justice Department’s privacy office thus dodged a yes-or-no matter — has the FBI has completed the legally mandated privacy analysis process? — by referring to previous, unclear FOIA responses. “Should you seek further information, please submit another request,” suggested Mr. Carr in conclusion.

“Unclear” is being generous. The original FOIA response looked like this:

And the most that could be determined from this “response” is that the FBI’s drone impact assessment contains at least 26 pages and, at one point, was somewhere where the feds could actually locate it.

EPIC, which is currently suing the FBI over its refusal to publish its privacy impact assessments, is completely baffled by the collective shrug offered by these two agencies — one which is supposed to craft and publish its assessments and that’s supposed to provide (obviously needed) oversight. Both seem equally uninterested in fulfilling the requirements of their jobs.

EPIC lawyers are stumped by the Justice Department’s response to FOIA requests for its drone reports, and particularly the OPCL’s claim not to have any PIA documents.

“They review the privacy impact assessment—that’s part of their responsibility within the Justice Department,” says Ginger McCall, who heads EPIC’s Open Government Project.

Well, transparency and accountability are both part of the three involved agencies’ jobs, but none of them seem interested in even creating the appearance of paying lip service to those crucial aspects of their responsibilities to the public. Instead, we get a list of pages the FBI won’t let us read, followed by the declaration that the document is missing entirely.

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Comments on “FBI Claims Drone Impact Assessment That Was Redacted In Full Six Months Ago Suddenly Can't Be Located”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

'You thought /we/ worked for /you/? That's a good one.'

The FBI should have just taken a picture of whoever was in charge of the department that received the request giving the two finger salute, and sent that over instead. Same exact response, with the exact same message sent to the one filing the requests, and with much less hassle.

I suppose I’m not exactly surprised they did this though. I mean, if the IRS can ‘lose’ a bunch of emails, and get away with it, it follows that other government agencies would start ‘misplacing’ any documentation that might be embarrassing or inconvenient. The only unexpected part is how blatant they are about it, but I suppose with an almost entirely gutless and spineless court system, it’s not like they have to worry at all about someone calling them out on their actions.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: 'You thought /we/ worked for /you/? That's a good one.'

The only unexpected part is how blatant they are about it, but I suppose with an almost entirely gutless and spineless court system, it’s not like they have to worry at all about someone calling them out on their actions.

Even if they got called out, what could happen? The DOJ is in charge of enforcement and they’re sure not going to do anything about it. That’s why they can act (or fail to act) with complete impunity.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

FBI: Hey, not a problem. It might take us a few years, got to make sure all the details are correct, and the research is done properly, but we’ll absolutely do it again.

But you know, Fido over there looks mighty hungry, so we won’t be able to promise that he won’t eat the next report when we finish it in a few years or so, so don’t get your hopes up too much, we might end up doing this a few times.

Nyarlathotep says:

I wish I had some witty comment but I am really getting sick of this crap the federal alphabet agencies are pulling and that more people don’t understand what damage they are doing to the whole damn country. There really needs to be something done about all of it, but I’ll be damned if I know how to even begin to do anything at all that would make an actual difference with the apathy of the public and purposeful complexity involved in the proper channels to wipe the slate clean.

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