FOIA requests – like them or not they are here. But what if you don’t comply?

Today’s discussion will talk about a specific FOIA request, the blatant disregard in failure to answer it, the motivation around the request, and more importantly why this affects you as an American citizen.

Jeff Laubhan – Waterford Technologies

Unfortunately, many public records requests (FOIA- Freedom of Information Act) can be frivolous and a wild goose chase- potentially wasting tax payer dollars. But honestly, one man’s folly might be another man’s freedom. What we have found with these requests over the years is that there seems to be a pattern. One innocent request to see calendar entries for an elected officialFOIA requests might uncover other meetings that could raise suspicions. Who knows what might be found, but when Congress enacted the initial act in 1966 its purpose was the same as it is today – to make government information accessible to the public. Over the years there have been various amendments to cover privacy and intelligence gathering but the spirit remains the same. Regardless, there are very specific guidelines to the entire process. Basically, within 20 days you need to either determine whether to comply or whether to appeal. For additional reading on the process you can read more here at: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/5/552 or look up US code: 5 U.S. Code § 552

Whenever I see a failure to comply or stalling I wonder, “why?” A few days ago, an article I read peaked my interest. You can read it here: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2014/01/free-sgt-star-army-ignores-foia-request-artificial-intelligence-records (Written by Dave Maass at the EFF or Electronic Frontier Foundation.)

For a while now the U.S. Army has been engaging an artificial intelligence program (called Sgt. Star) to act as a recruiter helping with their efforts in answering online chat questions and even making public appearances.

More than 75 calendar days have passed and the Army still hasn’t responded, not even to say they’re withholding the records. From what I have surmised, the request was definite, valid, and crafted appropriately. Even the right agency was addressed, which, given the labyrinth of departments in the US Military, could be a jaunting task.

So, a few thoughts jump out:

After receiving the request, why would they purposely not answer? They could always appeal and say the information is classified or the request was too broad. This wouldn’t make a lot of sense because if you type in the correct questions then a majority of the data in the form of answers is there in a piecemeal fashion.

Why should the private company that designed the technology have access to the information in the request and we as US citizens do not ?

Are there privacy concerns that potential recruits chatting online should be aware of?

Since the recruiting efforts of the US Army have been criticized in the past, are their current practices something that the public should be aware of?

Maybe the clarification is so simple that it lies right in front of us. When someone asked the program, Sgt. Star, why the organization was ignoring the request for information, he was told “Because I said so, and last I looked, I outrank you”.

Great, so now I know where I stand as a normal US citizen – no where.

But the bigger question that anyone can ask themselves anywhere in the world is: what happens? FOIA requests are available in some shape or form against all levels of governments all over the world. Public Records requests might have different names and “compliance” might be defined differently, but other than a nasty article in the local press, what happens for non-compliance? And who, if anyone, really enforces it?

Protect your organisation. Be prepared to handle FOIA requests. Find more information here!