Defense Department Tells MuckRock It Will Need To Come Up With $660 Million To Cover FOIA Request Fees

from the in-other-words,-the-GDP-of-Switzerland dept

Nothing quite tells the public to mind its own business like attaching a ridiculous fee demand to an FOIA response. It's pretty easy to price the public out of the transparency market, seeing as it doesn't have access to the monetary resources its tax dollars are paying for.

We've covered a few of the more ridiculous FOIA fee demands here at Techdirt, like:

The City of Ferguson charging $135/hour for FOIA response work -- a rate roughly 10 times the hourly wage of entry-level city clerk's office employees.

The City of McKinney telling Gawker emails related to a police misconduct investigation would run 9,000 hours and cost $79,000.

The Florida State's Attorney's Office demanding $180,000 to turn over records on a questionable suicide.

The FBI telling MuckRock that it would cost $270,000 to respond to an FOIA request about Booz Allen -- and that's with an electronic file "discount" of over $6,000 applied.
MuckRock has now topped that last number… exponentially. Martin Peck's FOIA request for information on the Dept. of Defense's use of "HotPlug" systems (a portable power pack that keeps seized devices from powering down) has resulted in an FOIA fee estimate exceeding a half-billion dollars.
Mr. Robert R. Jarrett, Director of Operations, Defense Procurement Acquisition Policy, and a FOIA Initial Denial Authority, stated that it is possible that contracts that acquired the requested items are present in the Electronic Documents Access (EDA) system; however, there are more than 30 million contracts in EDA, consisting of more than 45 million documents. No method exists for a complete text search of EDA, as some documents are scans of paper copies. The estimated time required to perform the necessary redactions of proprietary data, assuming 20 minutes per document, is estimated to be 15 million labor hours at an estimated cost of $660 million.
While this amount may be couch change for the DoD (0.1% of its $573 billion budget), it's ridiculously out of reach for any US citizen without billions of dollars to their name. Then there's the question of feasibility. Even if every man, woman and child in America tossed MuckRock a couple of bucks to push this request forward, the estimate of 15 million labor hours suggests the DoD will never fulfill it. If the DoD throws 30 people at the problem 24 hours a day without a day off, Peck still shouldn't expect a response until 2073 at the earliest.

This astronomical estimate says two things about the DoD, though. One, it apparently uses these forensic devices frequently enough that searching for responsive documents will be a massive undertaking. Two, it says the Electronic Document Access system is not nearly as useful as its name would suggest, what with document scans not being searchable. This is a government-wide problem and one that no one's too interested in fixing.

Many FOIA responses contain documents scanned at skewed angles using the worst hard copy available. It happens often enough that it almost appears the government is seeking to maintain a level of obfuscation while still paying lip service to transparency. Sure, a released document is better than no response at all, but the insistence on releasing documents capable of defeating OCR software prevents collation of similar documents and thwarts search efforts for relevant info -- both on the government's end and the public's.

This decision will be appealed and the request narrowed significantly, but I imagine the DoD's database will continue to thwart both its FOIA response team and requesters like Peck, for years to come.

Filed Under: defense department, fees, foia


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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 7 Mar 2016 @ 3:34am

    Hollywood accounting I tell you. I'm assuming at about 43% of that goes to grocery stores. Think of the grocery stores!

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

  • icon
    Not an Electronic Rodent (profile), 7 Mar 2016 @ 3:34am

    Titles

    Every time I see the FOIA mentioned, I can't help thinking of "Yes Minister":
    "Yes, we always dispose of the difficult bit in the title. Does less harm there than in the text."
    - Sir Humphrey Appleby

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

  • identicon
    David, 7 Mar 2016 @ 3:52am

    You have to understand these figures

    They probably have to download those documents via a Comcast "unlimited" data plan.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2016 @ 4:00am

    What I want to know, is if it takes that much effort to find documents, what is the purpose of the EDA? It cannot be to allow documents to be found when required.

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

  • identicon
    Capt ICE Enforcer, 7 Mar 2016 @ 4:23am

    Electronic Ink

    God I know printer ink is expensive. But that cost seem really high for a bunch of electronic completely redacted pages pig black electronic ink.

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

  • identicon
    Capt ICE Enforcer, 7 Mar 2016 @ 4:29am

    Alternate solution

    Alternate plans.
    1) DoD creates a user account so the people can do the leg work at their actual cost.
    2) Hire a 16 Y/O and have them hack the system and give the info to the world freely.

    Either way it saves time, energy, and money!

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

  • identicon
    SW, 7 Mar 2016 @ 4:56am

    "Many FOIA responses contain documents scanned at skewed angles using the worst hard copy available. It happens often enough that it almost appears the government is seeking to maintain a level of obfuscation while still paying lip service to transparency."

    I think you're ascribing malicious intent into sheer laziness. Record center contractors get paid by the number of pages they do. They need to fulfill a ccertain number of scans in a time period. They don't have to be *good* scans, and of course there are perverse incentives to doing good QC.

    And most tech services are done by contractors who change every 5-10 years, which doesn't do much for creating a stable cohesive database system. So I'm not surprised that the DoD system is even more messed up than the EPA system was that I worked on. Throw in multiple regions, all with different systems, and yeah, the entire back end is a mess.

    Not that I'm excusing the cost, but it's hardly a simple task to get all the documents, even if they are supposed to be available. And most of the cost of FOIA isn't from the document management side, it's because all of the documents need to be reviewed by a lawyer, who gets paid hourly, and well.

    The reasonable thing would be to create a redacted copy of a document when it gets scanned/added, but dear God, the number of records generated is breathtaking, far beyond the ability for anyone to do more than a cursory indexing of them, let alone the time-intensive work of redaction.

    Tl;dr: you're assuming that the federal government has its record management stuff together far more than it does, and it's more about bad management, perverse incentives, and entropy than it is malice.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2016 @ 7:45am

      Re:

      it's more about bad management, perverse incentives, and entropy than it is malice.

      Bad management and perverse incentives don't rule out malice. It they did, the government would be full of saints.

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

    • icon
      emcee (profile), 7 Mar 2016 @ 9:18am

      Re:

      I have been trying to find a document that the EPA "should" have a copy of for some time. FOIA searches have come up empty. I think the primary issue may well be age of the document and the systems in which it might have been stored originally.

      Is there any way to reach you directly for any advice you might be able to share?

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2016 @ 11:40am

      Re:

      I agree with you 100%.

      The real solution isn't to create a redacted copy of a document though, it's to properly use document markers when filling out the document in the first place. Then a system can read the markers and redact as needed prior to sending to a recipient with specific clearance matched against the markers.

      Any failures in this method cascade back to the person submitting the original document. All the lawyer has to do is review the redacted documents to ensure that the markers were applied correctly.

      And one more thing:
      MARKERS CANNOT BE REDACTED. This way, while a document returned for a FOIA request might be all blacked out, the reasons for blacking it all out are apparent, which adds at least a modicum of accountability to the process (ie: if all paragraphs in a document titled "Base Dry Cleaning Tender" come up marked "TS", there should be huge red flags, and heads should roll for being so lazy as to cause others undue work.

      https://fas.org/sgp/othergov/dod/nimaguide.pdf already exists; if it were actually USED, this wouldn't be an issue. The main issue comes from there being no consequesnces in the DoD for not using this document properly.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2016 @ 5:05am

    20 minutes per document

    Apparently they intend to redact all 45 million documents, whether or not they are responsive to the FOIA request.

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

  • icon
    Peter (profile), 7 Mar 2016 @ 5:19am

    High time for the overseers to investigate!

    While this may be a FOIA-request, the scenario 'give me everything we have on ...' is the most standard use case for document management systems.

    If each of these searches costs the tax payer 0.1 % of a $573 billion budget, those tax cuts we have been promised for a while now may finally become a reality, when the DoD is encouraged to upgrade its infrastructure, with OCR and metadata search ...

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2016 @ 5:36am

    It would be cheaper to be sued

    You could start an alternative company that provides this type of device. Wait to get sued, and then get the information you were requesting in discovery for hundreds of millions less than this request is asking for.

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

  • identicon
    ML, 7 Mar 2016 @ 5:39am

    "contracts that acquired the requested items"

    I thought the request was for records of investigations. Cam anyone clarify the use of the word "contracts" here?

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

  • identicon
    Joel Coehoorn, 7 Mar 2016 @ 6:21am

    Redacted

    I expected a large part of this is owed to the fact that basically everything DOD is classified at some level, almost by definition. So 20 minutes per document is probably not so much about finding the document as it is about the manual review to fill the page with black ink.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2016 @ 8:17am

      Re: Redacted

      But they only need to redact the documents that are actually responsive. 20 minutes to redact might be OK. But the vast majority of records in that database aren't going to be responsive, and it takes way less than 20 minutes to find that out.

      Not that it matters; even if it only takes six seconds to see whether a document is responsive, it's still going to be over a million dollars.

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

  • icon
    Oblate (profile), 7 Mar 2016 @ 6:36am

    $660M for a FOIA request? Has the DoD been defunded? Are they trying to buy more F-35's?

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2016 @ 11:45am

      Re:

      No; they've just been busy creating a LOT of paperwork that fails to OCR correctly. Paperwork costs time and money -- especially if it isn't done correctly the first time around.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2016 @ 6:58am

    This looks like a job for Hermes Conrad!
    http://www.hwdyk.com/q/images/futurama_s02e11_14.jpg

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

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 7 Mar 2016 @ 7:11am

    Okay, let's see. Every time the DOD needs to get information from a contract it costs roughly $660 million. If they search once a week on average, it costs taxpayers ~$34,320,000,000 per year. If they want us to honestly believe this, some heads need to roll. Really. There must be some serious dead weight at the top.
    Eliminate those in charge of the DOD and eliminate the National Debt in less than a year.

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

    • identicon
      Pixelation, 7 Mar 2016 @ 7:13am

      Re:

      Oops. My math is off by a factor of 1000.

      I shoulod fit right in at the DOD.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2016 @ 7:52am

      Re:

      Every time the DOD needs to get information from a contract it costs roughly $660 million.

      Good point. So if the DOD needs this same information for it's own use, it's going to cost the taxpayers $660 million to retrieve it? Sounds to me like massive fraud, waste and abuse going on there.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2016 @ 8:37am

    "...almost appears..."

    "...is obvious..."

    Fixed that for you.

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

  • icon
    Cybe R. Wizard (profile), 7 Mar 2016 @ 9:03am

    We only want the, "free," in, "freedom..."

    ...but they always supply just the, "dumb," instead.

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

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 7 Mar 2016 @ 1:01pm

    Wouldn't it be possible to just straight-up sue the government over the fact that its FOIA process is completely unusable?

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

  • identicon
    A Nameless Viking, 7 Mar 2016 @ 6:56pm

    How are we not bankrupt?

    With "we" I mean Sweden, where I live, of course.

    Sweden has the worlds oldest FOI laws, dating back to the 18th century. Our government is not allowed to charge for FOI requests. With these "costs", how can we not be long bankrupt?

    It's worth noticing that actually charging for them would be hard. If you walk into an office and make your request in person, government officials are not only forbidden to ask for ID or even your name, but also to try to find out who you are. This also makes it hard to harass anyone making a request, which is of course the whole point.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2016 @ 1:17am

      Re: How are we not bankrupt?

      With these "costs", how can we not be long bankrupt?

      Your administration clerks did not have a U.S. education. Your hobos are likely better qualified than a U.S. paper worker. Except that you have a shortage of hobos compared to the U.S.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2016 @ 7:54pm

    all i got from this was russia's military spending is estimated to be 84 billion and they seem to successfully invade a former soviet block country about every other year. how are we spending 573 billion and can even keep isil from taking over iraq.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2016 @ 1:11am

      Re:

      You have to bear in mind ISIS is being funded, supplied, trained and supported by the US government to fight against Assad.

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

  • icon
    nasch (profile), 7 Mar 2016 @ 8:51pm

    For that

    No method exists for a complete text search of EDA, as some documents are scans of paper copies.

    For that kind of money, they should be able to build a full text search system. Of course since this is the government, it would be bid at $660M but would actually cost $4B, take 15 years, and either not work or never be deployed.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Mar 2016 @ 11:58pm

    The only thing i get out of it, is they know there is no accountability and they can set the price as high as they want. Since no one will enforce them to set it at a reasonable or even legal price.

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

  • identicon
    C McQueen, 11 Mar 2016 @ 7:22pm

    Taxpayers' Money > Ridiculous Requests

    How about making people pay for wasting tax payers' money for outrageous requests? The public records officers don't just make up the number of hours it takes to review documents. It takes a very long time to ensure the security of information that, for various reasons, is not legal to disclose. Government can be sued for disclosing information. I people would just ask for what they need instead of *everything*, they could get what they want without the government spending a ridiculous amount of money hiring more people to review records for *one* request.

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

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 11 Mar 2016 @ 9:42pm

      Re: Taxpayers' Money > Ridiculous Requests

      I people would just ask for what they need instead of *everything*, they could get what they want

      Too frequently it actually requires a lawsuit to get what one wants. If the government generally showed a good faith desire to fulfill FOIA requests, it would be easier to accept their cost estimates.

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


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