There’s an interesting law on the books called the Freedom of Information Act, and it just celebrated its fiftieth birthday. So you’d think by now there would be a streamlined process for ensuring that everyone who files a FOIA request is able to navigate the system and access the data that they’re legally entitled to.
You’d be wrong.
A recent article by Davey Alba for WIRED.com reports on a lawsuit filed by MIT researcher Ryan Shapiro, ironically submitted on FOIA’s anniversary, which contends that the FBI is intentionally using outdated software in order to prevent some searches from being fully carried out. According to Alba, the computer system used for the FBI’s FOIA requests dates back to 1995, and is so old that it doesn’t have a mouse interface or icons. Basically, the FBI is processing these requests on “old IBM green screens.”
It’s truly heartbreaking to know that the FBI can’t afford to update its system…oh wait, they did? They updated recently? Of course they did, to a $425 million network called Sentinel. And that’s at the heart of Shapiro’s lawsuit; Sentinel isn’t used to search records for FOIA requests, not that it’s incapable or in a different department or due to a backlog of vital searches that are critical to Sentinel’s function, but simply because they FBI doesn’t do it. They rely on the old system for these requests, and turn up an alarming number of “no results found” results.
This certainly wouldn’t be the first time an agency decided to blame mechanical failure for something it didn’t want to do, but FOIA requests are by their definition a protected right that US citizens have to access information. Journalists, non-profits, and attorneys–just to name a few–depend on the protection of FOIA to meet the needs of the public, and the intentional use of unreliable technology, especially when the taxpayers have already paid for better technology, is something that Shapiro hopes to address in the lawsuit.