If You're Looking For A Laborious, Unresponsive Way To File FOIA Requests, The DHS Has An App For You

from the Y2K-COMPLIANT! dept

The DHS isn’t the most responsive government agency when it comes to FOIA requests. In fact, this government in general isn’t very responsive when it comes to FOIA requests. So, it’s completely understandable why its brand new FOIA app is similarly unresponsive.

First off, searching the Google Play store for “DHS” or “FOIA” will NOT find the app. If you use both those words together, however, you’ll find it at the top of the list. Clicking through brings you to the app’s page, which shows that whatever the DHS paid for its development, it’s going to be awhile before it ever returns whatever passes for ROI in publicly-funded app giveaways. 10+ downloads. That’s hardly a sign of widespread adoption.

Once you click Install, you’re given some information that makes no sense. Why would a government app need your location info? The question is unanswered anywhere in the app’s notes. Yes, you do need to turn over a certain amount of personal information to file an FOIA request, but the location it’s being sent from is irrelevant.

Now, the idea behind the app is a good one. If you’re the inquisitive type, ideas for FOIA requests may strike at inopportune moments. Rather than holding onto it until you’re in front of a proper computer, you can just fire one off immediately. IN THEORY.

The app doesn’t store your personal information (probably a good thing), so this means every FOIA request will require you to type in your name, address, etc. all over again.

The app’s shortcomings become apparent immediately. You’re given a list of agencies you can request from, but it’s far from complete. Most noticeably, the TSA is not on the list of available agencies and there’s no option to add other DHS agencies to the list. Presumably, the TSA will be added when (or if) its FOIA system is told to play nice with the DHS app.

As for the actual entry of personal information (the thing you’ll be doing EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU USE THE APP), it’s a complete travesty. The UI seems to have been created by a person who knows what a fill-in-the-blank form looks like, but has never actually performed the act on anything but paper.

Look closely at this screenshot. I’m currently in the Zip Code field. You know how I know this? Because when I start punching in numbers, it starts filling up the field. There’s no blinking cursor to let you know what field you’re in. (Nor does it show up when you need to edit something. It only provides the little teardrop indicator underneath wherever it is [approximately] that you tapped the screen.]

The fields themselves are, um… not smart. Not a single field entry triggers uppercase letters, despite almost every field being the sort of information one normally capitalizes.

It gets worse.

Clicking on State gives you a menu of states to choose from. But not 50 of them. Not even a dozen of them. You’d better hope you live in states None-Colorado because there is no way to scroll down the list (it’s static) or even manually enter your state’s name.

At this point, I gave up. It’s not even worth using as a last resort. You’d be better off writing a reminder in a functioning app and using the DHS’s website (or a clearinghouse like MuckRock) to do this twice as fast with half the hassle. The fields are unresponsive, your keyboard routinely covers what you’re trying to type in, and, for no apparent reason, the government now knows approximately where you last angrily yelled at its terrible app.

I am hoping this app improves over time — not because I plan to make use of it, but because it will show the agency is actually trying to make its agency more accessible and transparent, rather than just settling for a “Will this do?” app that actually won’t do. Not at all. And I guarantee the development of this app costs more than the development of apps with twice the capability and with at least a passing knowledge of common UI features.

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Comments on “If You're Looking For A Laborious, Unresponsive Way To File FOIA Requests, The DHS Has An App For You”

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Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Welcome to Your New DHS FOIA App

“Welcome to your new FOIA app. It is designed to help you submit to your government as quickly and easily as possible.”

“Just enter your name and address, select a category, and type in the details of your request. Then click submit. At this point, the request will be submitted directly to our in-action file, where you will be investigated as quickly as possible. It could happen in mere seconds, possibly even before you click ‘Submit.'”

“Assuming your request should meet our lenient criteria for issues of national security, unless of course it is a matter of national security, we will be providing the information to you as soon as possible.”

“Of course, there may be a fee for providing the information. Be sure to update our app as soon as the next version comes out that supports in-app purchases. Once we determine the amount due, you’ll be able to submit your personal payroll by merely clicking the ‘Red-Action’ payment button.”

“Once your payroll is in hand, we will rush to redact the required documents as soon as possible. You could receive our response in as soon as twenty leap days, which is hardly any time at all.”

“So enjoy your new app, and remember that, after you submit, the investigators could be responding instantly to a location near you.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Paranoid

Due to disc capacities, and intelligent disk controllers, modern disc formatters do not do a low level format of the discs, but only rewrite partition tables, and directory structures for the file system type selected. An overwrite of data needs use of a disc nuke tool, and this takes a considerable time to do its job.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Paranoid

Linux only user here, but Linux tools do not offer a real low level formatter, neither fdisk, or gparted offer a low level format for hard disks, just partition and file system setup. When they say they are formatting a partition, they are really just writing the blank directory structure to the disk.
Hint, if it only takes minutes it is not a write every sector format, which depending on disk size will take hours to days, if it is even possible outside of the factory. A low level format for a modern disk is complicated by bad sector management, and the problem that the sector structure presented to the operating system may not be the same as actually on the disk.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Paranoid

Be VERY, VERY careful if you are using SSD drives as I don’t think that there is even a way to low level format these drives. When you save a file to them, they use “wear leveling” so that all of the memory gets used, not just the first part of the memory over and over.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Paranoid

Looking on the Kingston web site, they recommend using a DOS shareware tool called HDDErase. They say for SSDs you need to use a utility that properly implements the ATA Secure Erase command. The erase should only take 2-5 minutes depending on drive size, not hours like a spinning HDDs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Nothing new

About 40 years ago, the Chief Test Pilot and Director of Aircraft Operations at NASA Ames Research Center, who was also a recognized expert on aviation safety, made a request (pre-FOIA, obviously) to the FAA for certain records on flight crews in various air carrier “incidents”. After the third written request, he received a package containing about 300 pages of photocopy, which had apparently been used in a game of 52-pickup and then stuffed, bent and unsorted, in a big envelope.
Federal agencies have never been too big on ease-of-use.

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