It’s well documented that the FBI is keen on adopting new technologies that intrude on our civil liberties. The FBI’s enthusiasm for technology, however, doesn’t extend to tools that make it easier for the public to understand what the agency is up to—despite such transparency being mandated by law.
The FBI recently announced that it’s removing the ability for the public to send Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the agency via email. Instead, the FBI will now only accept requests sent through snail mail, fax, or a poorly designed and extremely limited website.
The FBI’s decision to abandon email—a free and ubiquitous method of communication—as a means of sending in FOIA requests will make sending requests to the agency far more difficult. The decision will thus undoubtedly thwart both transparency and accountability, and the FBI must be well aware of this. In a world in which thermostats and toasters are increasingly connected to the Internet, the FBI's rejection of emailed FOIA requests is a slap in the face to transparency. The FBI's decision is all the more galling given that other agencies are currently embracing technologies that both help people making FOIA requests and help the agencies more efficiently and effectively process them.
What's more, the FBI’s alternative solution—it's new “E-FOIA” website website—is no solution at all. The website places a 3,000 character limit on requests and has technical barriers that prevent automated FOIA requests. These constraints significantly limit the amount of information people can seek via a single request and needlessly slow down the process.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the website’s terms of service, which place limits on the types of requests that can be filed digitally. They suggest the website will not accept FOIA requests seeking records about FBI operations, activities, or communications. Not only does this make no sense from a technical standpoint, it runs directly counter to the very purpose of FOIA: ensuring that the public can learn about an agency’s operations and activities.
EFF is grateful to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Or.), who sent a letter (pdf) to the FBI on Friday highlighting many of the concerns we have about the FBI’s abandonment of email and its reliance on an problematic website. We look forward to the FBI’s response.
The FBI's recent announcement makes one thing clear: Congress should—and easily could—update FOIA to require all federal agencies, including the FBI, to accept FOIA requests via email. In the digital world we live in, this is a no-brainier. EFF has been calling for this simple fix, along with a host of other changes, for some time, and we remain committed to supporting legislative efforts that increase government transparency.