Speaking at the Def Con conference last week, academic Ryan Shapiro accused the FBI of avoiding compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and “succeeding consistently fragrantly in violating the FOIA law”.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) model is one of the “most under-appreciated elements of US society and broken”, according to academic Ryan Shapiro.
Speaking at the Def Con conference last week, Shapiro accused the FBI of avoiding compliance with FOIA and “succeeding consistently fragrantly in violating the FOIA law”.
He said: “The FBI is currently arguing in court that my MIT dissertation FOIA research methodologies are themselves a threat to national security. In addition to being a preposterous attempted end run around transparency, this will ultimately look great on the back of the book. The FBI’s core motivation here is attempting to preserve its functional immunity from the Freedom of Information Act.
“FOIA is one of most underappreciated elements of the entire American experiment. The notion that the records of government are the property of the people, and all we need to do to get them is to ask for them, is radically democratic. But FOIA is broken.”
He said that FOIA is broken because it’s toothless, and because there are functionally no penalties for non-compliance. “As Harvard historian of science Peter Gallison has shown, there is now exponentially more classified information than there is published non-classified information, and this disparity grows more severe by the day,” he said.
“Secrecy is a cancer on the body of democracy. Because FOIA is broken, and because there are too few heroic whistleblowers, another form of information access is required to return the records of Government to their rightful owners: Hack the FBI.”
Shapiro confirmed that he was calling for was “exceedingly dangerous” and is “a violation of the Espionage Act”, but in the absence of an adequately workable FOIA, or whistleblowers, he argued that such hacking of the FBI and other agencies is essential to the viability of American democracy.
Dave Maass, media relations coordinator and investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told IT Security Guru that he did think that FOIA was a powerful tool and was effective in some circumstances, but it was flawed law.
“I am sure that as much as Ryan criticised it, he had made good use of it and got good things out of it over time,” he said. “We have been able to get a lot of good information out of FOIA requests and also had to sue over it. One of the main problems of FOIA is there is not a lot of recourse unless you want to get lawyers involved and that comes with the legal bills, in the end you may win but in the meantime that is a risk to take.
“There are some times where I have put an FOIA in and it has taken a year to get a response, so it is a very flawed system. But it is the best we have and better to have it than not.”
A spokesperson for ViaSat, who issued research this week based on an FOIA request, told IT Security Guru that to its knowledge, things have worked out pretty well.
“Admittedly ViaSat has only dealt with the ICO and police forces so far, but those bodies have been good at providing information in time,” they said. “While there have been instances where the information was less complete or different than expected, those could be put down to misunderst
anding or believing that uncovering the information would take longer than the allotted time, so I don’t think we can make any solid conclusions from them.”