FBI Changes FOIA Policies, Tries To Route More Requesters To Fax Machines, Mailboxes

from the FBI-FOIA:-where-the-present-is-always-several-years-away dept

The FBI's relationship with the FOIA is, at the very least, contentious. The agency clearly would rather follow the letter of the law than its spirit... but only the letters it likes. It will technically release documents -- sometimes years after the request is made -- even if said documents are nothing more than a mostly blank paper telling the requester that all 509 pages have been withheld.

To the FBI -- and to its official FOIA stats -- this release of nothing counts as a "response." Even cutting itself this much slack on "responses" hasn't helped the FBI's FOIA stats. This has led to it preemptively declaring any response that may include more than 50 pages as "complex," in hopes of massaging its clearly awful response times.

Considering the FBI's open antagonism towards FOIA requesters, it comes as no surprise the agency is making it even more difficult for requesters to make requests. The Daily Dot reports on the FBI's latest changes to its FOIA policies.

At the beginning of March, the FBI will no longer accept FOIA requests via email. Instead, requesters will have to rely on fax machines and standard mail (“snail mail”) in order to communicate with the agency’s records management division. The agency will also accept a fraction of requests through an online portal, provided users agree to a terms-of-service agreement and are willing to provide the FBI with personal information, including a phone number and physical address.

In the year of our various lords two-thousand-seventeen, the FBI is pushing requesters towards fax machines and snail mail. Why? Because it makes it incrementally more of a hassle to request documents from the agency. Sure, there are a number of options online to turn emails into faxes, but it's just one more hoop to jump through, put into place by the FBI with absolutely zero justification.

Anything that discourages the filing of a request is a win in the FBI's book. Anything that makes the process more time consuming is just another deterrent. And forcing electronic requesters to provide a phone number and physical address is completely nonsensical. This itself is a deterrent, as some requesters may not feel comfortable giving the FBI this information in exchange for a pile of redated PDF pages at some point in the next six months-five years.

And there's no guarantee requests sent in the FBI's preferred form will even make it through. As was noted here a few years ago, an agency with an annual budget in the high billions (Defense Dept.) was sending letters to requesters to inform them that the Department's FOIA fax machine was broken and might not be replaced until the beginning of the next fiscal year.

Add to that the FBI's internal search system, which appears to be deliberately designed to avoid finding responsive documents. Some of the equipment dates back to the 1980s, and the databases it accesses are siloed off from each other, preventing cross-searches for specified terms. Requesters need to know as much about FOIA documents searches as the FBI's FOIA response team in order to coax even a minimum of compliance from the agency.

The good news is that the FBI has been shamed into rolling back part of its "fax and stamps" FOIA demands. It would still prefer requesters use the most archaic form possible when asking for documents, but it has rolled back restrictions it placed on requests made through its online portal.

Earlier on Tuesday, the FBI told the Daily Dot it would remove the limit on the number of submissions requesters could make and allow users to file requests 24 hours a day.

“The FBI eFOIA portal has been under development and testing for two years. With the full implementation of the portal on March 1, 2017, the terms of service for the site will be modified to allow an unlimited number of requests, no limitation on the number of requests which may be submitted by an individual, and availability seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” the FBI said in a statement.

Even with this belated fix, the FBI has still drawn the attention of Senator Ron Wyden, who plans to ask a bunch of pointed FOIA questions at his earliest convenience.

"Sen. Wyden has a number of concerns about the FBI’s new FOIA policy, even with the revisions announced today,” Keith Chu, Wyden's spokesman, told the Daily Dot in an email. “He plans to ask FBI how it justifies limiting access to information the public has a right to access.”

I'm sure the agency will inform Ron Wyden that it performs the statutory minimum to comply with FOIA law, even if this "compliance" results in routine, lengthy response delays and multiple lawsuits. But it may find it harder to explain how it arrived at the conclusion it could do even LESS than it already does by instituting these policies.

Filed Under: email, fax machines, fbi, foia, transparency


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Feb 2017 @ 1:08pm

    Am I being cynical when I say that the fax machine may fail to print clearly, and snail mail can get lost.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Feb 2017 @ 1:32pm

      Re:

      I immediately thought the same thing when I read about this the other day from another news site.

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

    • icon
      GristleMissile (profile), 8 Feb 2017 @ 1:54pm

      Re:

      Cynical is technically a correct term, but realistic, accurate, prescient, and bleeding obvious would all work as well.

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

    • icon
      afn29129 (profile), 8 Feb 2017 @ 1:54pm

      Re:

      USPS with Certified Return Receipt. If someone is actually serious about making a FOIA request then they can take the time to print, and the small expense of certified mail.

      This way there is proof, someone has to sign for the letter.

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

    • icon
      sigalrm (profile), 8 Feb 2017 @ 1:57pm

      Re:

      If you're going to do this via snail mail, do yourself a favor and send it registered mail, signature / proof of delivery required.

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

    • identicon
      I.T. Guy, 8 Feb 2017 @ 2:06pm

      Re:

      Email? What Email?

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

    • identicon
      Jon M, Kelley, 12 Feb 2017 @ 5:49pm

      Re: Fax fix

      Back in the last century, fax was the preferred mode of communication for many insurers, and yes depending how productivity was being measured there were times when faxes were repeatedly sent but never received. The PC & scheduling SW solved that problem by permitting the same fax document to be resent at fixed intervals, until the recipient called the sender and said the document had been received, was readable, and complete. Soon after the insurers came up with something that prevented faxes from being "lost".

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

  • icon
    JoeCool (profile), 8 Feb 2017 @ 1:16pm

    Trying to make it more a pain in hopes you don't bother

    There's one fax machine in my town (of 40,000), and that's at the Safeway. It costs $5 to use, plus $3 per page sent, with no guarantees it will be received, or the quality any good. If you don't like it, drive 180 miles to find the next fax machine, or buy one yourself.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Feb 2017 @ 7:39am

      Re: Trying to make it more a pain in hopes you don't bother

      We have a small local printing business and we offer walk in customers fax services on the side. No one else in the area offfers fax service because it's such a hassle. We charge $2 for the first page and $1 for each additional page for local faxes, much cheaper than our nearest competitors that offer fax. We give the customer a fax confirmation that the machine prints but if the fax doesn't make it through we are usually happy to try again for free if the customer comes back later or to give the customers back their money. It's not worth upsetting customers over a few dollars.

      But, yes, I can confirm that faxes are a hassle. Often times you have to try sending and re-scanning the pages a second or third time and each time it tries to send takes forever because the machine may have already tried several times. You get a busy signal, poor line conditions for long distance faxes, etc... Or it takes forever to get to page four out of five only to crash and with no confirmation that anything made it through you must start over. Not that the confirmation always means they got it and a day later the customer comes back complaining the fax didn't make it through after all this trouble. For a few dollars it's probably not worth it but we do have some very grateful customers that thank us for being the only business in the area that still offers fax service and for cheaper than our nearest competitors. And if a customer gives us an attitude we have no problems telling them that we don't make a ton of money off this and they are free to go to take a long hike to the nearest competitor who will charge much more and won't give them the service we provide (ie: multiple attempts for no additional charge, money back if you tell us that the recipient didn't get the fax).

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Feb 2017 @ 1:23pm

    Counter-Action

    Time to mount a massive civil campaign of non-cooperation with FBI and the other alphabetics of the go'ment.

    FBI: We're from the FBI - we'd like to have a word with you.
    You: Do you have a warrant?
    FBI: No.
    You: Do you have probable cause to arrest me?
    FBI: No.
    You: Can you articulate a reasonable suspicion to detain and interview me.
    FBI: No.
    You: [Walk away.]/[Close and lock door.]/[Hang up phone.]

    Rinse and repeat for as long as it takes.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Feb 2017 @ 1:35pm

      Re: Counter-Action

      And promptly get shot as non cooperation makes them fear for their life.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Feb 2017 @ 1:40pm

      Re: Counter-Action

      ...and then get your door broken down as they then just use the "we believe he is destroying evidence" excuse.

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

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 8 Feb 2017 @ 1:43pm

      Re: Counter-Action

      FBI: Asset forfeiture it is then.

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

    • identicon
      I.T. Guy, 8 Feb 2017 @ 2:00pm

      Re: Counter-Action

      Way too involved.

      FBI: We're from the FBI - we'd like to have a word with you.
      Me: You just did. [Walk away.]/[Close and lock door.]/[Hang up phone.]

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

    • icon
      Eldakka (profile), 8 Feb 2017 @ 6:08pm

      Re: Counter-Action

      Why even answer the door?

      AFAIK, there is no law that requires you to answer the door when someone knocks on it.

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

    • icon
      Eldakka (profile), 8 Feb 2017 @ 6:11pm

      Re: Counter-Action

      bah, should have added this to original reply, but no edit.

      Get a supply of business cards for a lawyer, and if they ever speak to you, hand them the card and say "speak to my lawyer - BTW he doesn't have a telephone or email address, you'll have to arrange an appointment to speak to them via postal mail or fax".

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Feb 2017 @ 1:29pm

    "The agency clearly would rather follow the letter of the law than its spirit... but only the letters it likes."

    Let's see... They like the F, that's for sure. O, nope. I, nope. A, nope. Aaaaand... Wait, there's no U?

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

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 8 Feb 2017 @ 5:09pm

    Bit bucket

    "...the terms of service for the site will be modified to allow an unlimited number of requests, no limitation on the number of requests which may be submitted by an individual,..."

    Translation: "We now have an unlimited bit bucket!"

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

  • identicon
    Kronomex, 8 Feb 2017 @ 11:51pm

    "We're sorry that the fax machine broke down and/or your letter got lost in the mail. We will now pass you to our FOIA recovery team who will be able to help you."

    "FOIA Recovery Team here. We are sorry that we cannot handle your problem at the moment. Please fax and/or post us and we will get back to you as soon as possible. Have a nice day."

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

  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 9 Feb 2017 @ 7:12am

    So. It has come to this.

    The government is now far more likely to read one of your emails if you don’t send it to the government.

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

    • icon
      The Wanderer (profile), 10 Feb 2017 @ 6:11am

      Re: So. It has come to this.

      I'm not sure whether this would be better fit as First Word or as Last Word, but it definitely deserves one of the two.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Feb 2017 @ 11:44am

    If you're going to go back you might as well do it right

    May I make a suggestion? Instead of faxes and snail mail perhaps they should go back to the telegraph and the pony express.

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


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