2019’s FOIAs - Year in Review and Reflections
This past year has definitely been the most active for me in regards to public records requests, so I thought I would spend a bit of time on New Year’s Eve to go over some of the details of my year with FOIA. A time for reflections, things that went well and things I wish I’d done a bit differently. I hope some of these might help others working with public records requests in journalism, activism, and other realms.
Let’s start with some metric-based analysis and insights (I will only be covering details from MuckRock data through 2019, as 97% of my requests were made through their platform):
- In 2019 I made 183 total FOIA requests from my MuckRock account
- 41 of 183 or 22.4% of them were completed by the respective agency
- 23 of the total records have not even received an acknowledgement from the agency at hand
- Only 11 of the total request were outright rejected
- I sent out FOIAs to 106 different agencies in total
- Only 9 of my 160 FOIAs with a response had a fee affiliated with them - the largest single one being $374.98
- I’ve been in lawsuits for 3 of my requests this year (two local agencies and one federal)
Most of my requests have pertained to law enforcemnt and other government technology I’m curious about - often looking to shed light on surveillance tools and programs. However I have also been interested in understanding some historical aspects of events and technical platforms this year. For example, I am interested in federal agency’s perceptions and experience with open source operating systems. Some responsive records for a request I made with the FBI into documents on OpenBSD revealed a peek into the investigation of a hack committed against the OS’s concurrent version system and a vulnerability discovered in OpenSSH in the early 2000’s.
In a less technical but more historically important request, I have been in litigation with the FBI for records pertaining to former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, who was accussed by dozens of arrested citizens of torture leading to forced confessions. To this day, I am still slowly receiving the over-5,000 pages of records due from the request after paying the processing fee assigned.
I’m looking to do more requests like this in the future, as I find them important and substantive.
Things I’ve learned
Organization is key - With everything else going on in life, its often hard to keep track of some of my requests. The status of a request sent out by email or letter can easily fade away and get lost. Using MuckRock alone has really made the process a lot easier, especially with features like their built-in filtering tools and automatic requests for updates. (please consider supporting MuckRock via donation!)
Talk to other FOIA nerds - I’ve been very lucky to have been able to quickly ask for opinions, tips, and gain insights from other requesters and it has helped me learn a lot about the process. There are a some great platforms available for people to communicate online, but I would hilghly recommend people who are interested in FOIA to also get involved in local in-person get togethers inclusing trainings, meetups, etc. There is always something new to learn.
Just file it! - I remember a few years ago when I first started getting interested in filing requests I had an initial hesitancy to go forth a lot of times. Does this sound right? Is the agency going to respond well? Is the timing proper? The more requests I’ve made, the more I’ve found (after enough research and proper wording) its much more worth it to just file the request. You can always clone, re-file, or go about things a different way after getting a denial or request to narrow, but there is so little to lose by “going for it” to get started.
Appeal more - I wish I had gone with my gut and appealed more on a lot of my requests before it had become too late. As I’ve learned a lot more about exemption types this year, its become clear that agencies are often eager to deny infromation within responsive records or redact very liberally. In the past, appealing has helped me expose unjustifiable exemption uses and freed up documents I’ve been looking for. Its an option I need to use more when I’m in doubt.
Sqeuaky Wheel Calls - Unfortunately, a lot of agencies would either never respond or even seemingly dignify the existence of my requests from MuckRock. This would have me calling the FOIA officers or main numbers for the agency’s proper records department. A lot of the time this worked in getting the ball rolling or sometimes forcing people to track down my initial request. Other times I’d become lost in a void of call transfers and voicemails. Its a tool there to use if you’re not getting a response after a while, nonetheless.
Request “portals” != convenience - I can’t express enough how hard of a time I have had with 3rd-party FOIA portals that are supposed to “automate” responses and processing of requests on behalf of agencies. They have really gummed up the wheels of a lot of my projects in MuckRock. I would say if you run into any agency that has one of these and you start getting buried in weird automated responses with your request, it is best to use just call or use email to process things further (please also make notes of these in MuckRock when you can, using the “Get Help” feature in the request thread).
Other thoughts and resources
- I hope to start getting better at data visualization based on some of my responsive records in the future.
- I worked with other Lucy Parsons Labs members to do a lot of FOIA training in 2019, and we plan on similar events in the future. I’ve helped create a useful presentation for those newer to FOIA, which can be found here.
- FOIA dot wiki is a great resource I recommend to beginners and beyond.
FOIA is not my day-job and all the work involved with my requests is done in my spare time. If you would like to help support my future FOIA efforts, the best way to do so would be to donate the the NFP I volunteer for and do most of my FOIA requests through. We have a some projects prepared for the new year. You can do so here.
Thanks for reading, and happy filing in 2020.