Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back as FBI Launches “eFOIA”

On November 30, the FBI announced the opening of their new “eFOIA” system, which allows for the submission and delivery of web-based Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Previously, requests either had to be mailed, faxed, or emailed to the agency and back. The system was created for “a new generation that’s not paper-based,” according to David Hardy, chief of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section.

The announcement asserted that the use of the online form will allow the FBI to process more requests, faster, at a lower cost. This sounds great. There is, however, a catch: the FBI has created several obstacles for those who wish to use the portal.

There are two primary—and arbitrary—obstacles. The first is that a copy of the requester’s government-issued ID must be attached to the request; the second is that the FBI has restricted the number of requests to only one per person per day. These requirements are not based in existing FOIA law and are not found in other agencies. The restrictions have been described as “over the top” and “completely unnecessary” by Matt Rumsey of the Sunlight Foundation, as reported by FedScoop. He went on to say that “It’s one thing to request an email address, or ask somebody for their mailing address and name, but to actually send over an ID is, at the least, going to discourage people from filing FOIA requests.” The ID requirement might be reasonable when requesting information on yourself, but since requests about any living person must still be submitted through the old channels, the new ID requirement is unwarranted.

Two possible reasons present themselves for these seemingly arbitrary rules. Either the FBI is trying to protect against spammers, or, causing far more concern, they want to be able to track who is asking for what, leading to the potential watch-listing of specific watchdogs or activists—common users of FOIA. The spam defense, which the FBI has not claimed, is weak for several reasons, most significant of which is the fact that, according to the FedScoop article, other agencies with more easily accessible online FOIA portals have yet to report that problem. This makes it a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist—a poor rationale for keeping restrictions in place. Without the problem of spammers, the limit on requests serves only to frustrate those who might otherwise set aside an afternoon or a day to submit multiple FOIA requests.

Another possible reason for the one-a-day restriction is that the system may not yet be able to handle significant numbers of submissions. When I attempted to use the eFOIA portal, I was greeted with a notification warning me that “eFOIA has reached it’s [sic] max number of submissions for one day. Please try again tomorrow.” It appears that the eFOIA system has a total per-day cap, after which it completely shuts down. This issue may be resolved or mitigated in the coming weeks and months, but it may also be indicative of other, longer lasting problems with system.

Unless the restrictions change, it is unlikely that the new system will result in any significant savings for the FBI, as the more traditional methods of filing will remain preferable to those who are less trusting of the government.

Moving forward, yes, but only one step.