In the digital world, it makes no sense to refuse to permit FOIA requests being made by e-mail, but then, if you want to make your government less accessible to the public, I suppose that limiting requests to faxes and snail mail makes perfect sense.
As TechCrunch reported on February 6th, starting next month, the FBI will no longer accept Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by e-mail. The FBI will allow a small portion of FOIA requests via a new web portal, but the filer must first provide a phone number, mailing address and other personal details as well as signing off on the following terms of service agreement.
The terms state that anyone making a FOIA request online is now "limited to making one request per day and one request per submission," language that does not immediately appear to be supported by law. Then again, the FBI's established use of outdated technology for FOIA requests does not necessarily sit well with its requirement to show that a search was "reasonably calculated to discover the requested documents," as is required by law.
To make the process more accessible—and to promote the freedom of information more broadly—a popular service called MuckRock offers forms and online tracking for anyone using FOIA to request documents in the public record. The spirit of the FBI's FOIA shift runs counter to MuckRock's mission, and the mission of so many FOIA filers who seek to emancipate information that rightfully belongs to the public.
The FBI is only one of many government bodies providing FOIA resistance, but it's a big one. Notably, the CIA is among the other agencies that do not accept standard digital FOIA requests in spite of having the resources to do so. Given the FBI's track record and ongoing controversy, its decision to return to archaic technology is troubling, but for dogged FOIA filers, another layer of strategic obfuscation is just business as usual.
Sad, but true. And I predict we'll see more obfuscation. FOIA is no friend to governmental entities who have things to hide – and that is the point of its existence.
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Digital Forensics/Information Security/Information Technology