The FBI is using outdated IT to foil FOIA requests, lawsuit alleges

Its searches for documents often fail 'by design,' an MIT researcher says

The FBI is using antiquated computer systems to deliberately foil requests made under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, a new lawsuit alleges.

Ryan Shapiro, a national security researcher and Ph.D. candidate at MIT, has been studying the Freedom of Information Act for years with a particular focus on noncompliance by government agencies. He already has multiple FOIA lawsuits in motion against the FBI, and earlier this month he filed a new one.

In it, he describes numerous attempts to obtain information over the past two years, and the FBI's frequent response that it can't locate what he's looking for.

"When it comes to FOIA, the FBI is simply not operating in good faith," Shapiro said via email. "Since the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI has viewed efforts to force bureau compliance with FOIA as a security threat."

The FBI has established "countless means" of foiling FOIA requests, he alleges, including a process by which searches fail "by design."

In particular, the FBI typically conducts FOIA searches in the "universal index" portion of its legacy Automated Case Support system, which was deployed in 1995. Because of the limitations of that technology, those searches frequently produce no results, he says.

Furthermore, despite the existence of two much better search applications within ACS -- along with newer search technologies implemented since then -- the FBI "almost always refuses" to use those more modern systems on the grounds that they're no more likely to produce results, and that using them would be "unduly burdensome and seriously wasteful of FBI resources," Shapiro says.

"The FBI’s assertion is akin to suggesting that a search of a limited and arbitrarily produced card catalogue at a vast library is as likely to locate book pages containing a specified search term as a full text search of a database containing digitized versions of all the books in that library," Shapiro said. "Simply, the FBI’s assertion is absurd."

In January, a judge in the District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in Shapiro's favor in a related case, finding that the FBI’s policy is “fundamentally at odds" with FOIA. The FBI, meanwhile, has argued that Shapiro's work constitutes a threat to national security.

In his latest lawsuit, filed July 4 in the same court, Shapiro requests that the FBI turn over the documents he says were withheld from him, waive the fees it tried to charge him, and cover his attorney fees and other litigation expenses.

Access to information about the operations of government is essential to democracy, but FOIA is "broken," Shapiro said. "If we hope to know even some of what our government is truly up to, FOIA must not only be defended against the FBI and others who view transparency as a threat, but strengthened and dramatically expanded."

The FBI is a component of the U.S. Department of Justice, which declined to comment for this story.

"Many government agencies deal with software older than the interns servicing them," said Raymond Van Dyke, a technology attorney based in Washington, D.C.

In time, with more challenges to the FOIA protocol and better safeguards built into the FBI's current Sentinel software, the bureau "will better honor FOIA requests," Van Dyke predicted. "For now, however, the protocol is to go back to the mainframe era -- the days of Reagan."

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