As we move towards the 50th anniversary of the US Freedom of Information Act, the FBI is being hit with a lawsuit that addresses how FOIA requests are handled. The lawsuit, filed by FOIA researcher Ryan Shapiro, alleges that the FBI deliberately uses their 21-year-old system to make finding the records difficult or impossible. The decades old Automated Case Support (ACS) system is worse than inadequate in searching for documents, and the FBI almost inherently refuses to use the newer Sentinel software that cost $425 million to develop.
According to FOIA law, government agencies are required to “make reasonable efforts to search for the records in electronic form or format.” If the requested document is found, the person who requested the document is to promptly receive a copy. This rarely happens.
In a conversation with The Guardian, Shapiro claims the system is set up in a way so FOIA requests are designed to fail. He points out how poorly the indexing by the ACS is done, resulting in a major number of documents being lost in the system. And, when the FBI employee uses the ACS to find the document being requested, only part of files are scanned. Instead of searching for keyword matches anywhere in a paper, for instance, the ACS would only search the opening paragraph. After the search comes back with no results, the FBI refuses to use any of the more advanced tools and tells the requester “sorry, we tried.”
“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 database containing digitized versions of all the books in that library,” Shapiro tells The Guardian.
According to the DoJ, the $425m Sentinel searching tool is not necessary to fulfill the FBI’s obligation to the FOIA request. When Shapiro asked the DoJ to use the Sentinel software to find specific records that the outdated ACS was unable to find, they told him it “would be needlessly duplicative of the FBI’s default ACS UNI index-based searches and wasteful of Bureau resources.”
The FBI’s technological inadequacy in filling FOIA requests is not a new issue; a report from the Government Accountability Office revealed that many key US agencies, including the Pentagon, are still using “legacy” IT. Even Jack Israel, a former Chief Technology Officer at the FBI, has had similar issues with the system the FBI currently uses.
“It’s based on an IBM mainframe with legacy database and programming technology, and I would say one of the main things that strikes you as a user of ACS is that you’re dealing with the old IBM green screens. You’re not dealing with a web-based environment, which everyone is used to from the internet,”Jack Israel writes.
While the FBI has the advantage of being both a branch of the US government and having readily accessible taxpayer funding, Shapiro’s lawsuit does stand a chance. In January of 2016, a court ruled in the favor of the MIT student, agreeing that the FBI’s policy is “fundamentally at odds with the statute”. With a win already under his belt, there is weight behind his accusations. One can hope that the court will again rule in his favor, potentially resulting in truly accessible records.