The FBI’s new online portal for Freedom of Information Act requests, which the agency bills as streamlining the process, instead introduces unnecessary conditions that make disclosure filings harder than ever before, say critics.
Open government advocates say there’s no basis in law or policy for the new conditions, which include a requirement that those filing FOIA requests submit a copy of their government-issued photo ID.
The FBI publicly released their new eFOIA platform Monday, giving the public a chance to file a request for information outside of regular mail, fax or email. In an open beta, the system is designed for what David Hardy, chief of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section, called “a new generation that’s not paper-based.”
However, listed in the terms are some new stipulations that have government transparency groups crying foul. For the FBI to consider a request, a photo of a government-issued ID has to be included with the request so that, according to the bureau, the FBI can be “confident in the identity of the requester.”
The bureau “just made that [requirement] up out of thin air,” Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, told FedScoop. “The new FBI terms of service exceed what the law requires and allows.”
The ID requirement goes well beyond the directions listed in the Justice Department’s FOIA guide. That guide, even for filings that require a confirmation of identity — such as a request for the requestor’s own FBI file — states that a notarized declaration by the requestor is sufficient.
“The FOIA itself makes clear that it can be used by ‘any person’ who invokes its provisions,” Aftergood said. “One doesn’t even need to be a U.S. citizen. So there is no basis for the FBI to require a government-issued ID.”
Other open government advocates FedScoop spoke to were equally baffled about the hurdles the FBI had added to the new platform.
Matt Rumsey, a senior policy analyst with the Sunlight Foundation, told FedScoop the ID requirement is “over the top” and “completely unnecessary.”
“In my experience, it’s not something that any other government agency asks for,” Rumsey said. “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.”
Eric Gillespie, CEO of business intelligence firm Govini, said he found it “very odd” that the FBI would even request this information.
“For the life of me, I can’t figure out how a government ID helps the agency source and surface the information that’s been requested,” he told FedScoop. “I don’t understand why they would need this.”
Gillespie, who is a member of the National Archives and Records Administration’s FOIA Advisory Committee, said besides government watchdogs, companies often issue their own FOIA requests. Statutes like what the FBI has proposed present thorny issues for employers.
“If you’re a company requesting something under FOIA, does that mean your employees are required to provide this?” Gillespie said. “How many employees are willing to give the FBI their personally identifiable information on behalf of their employer? It’s tantamount to tracking what books you check out of the library.”
Aftergood said that the bureau could possibly be trying to defend against “spammers or spoofers” looking to abuse the system, but “other agencies have not had this kind of problem, and haven’t needed this kind of ‘solution.’”
Experts also told FedScoop that another requirement, limiting the public to making one request a day and one request per submission, is completely arbitrary and not found in any sort of law or regulation related to FOIA.
“They are taking that opportunity to impose slightly harder lines,” Rumsey said. “There are plenty of other agencies that have online systems that don’t require this sort of thing.”
The FBI declined FedScoop’s request for comment on the eFOIA platform’s terms.