It’s March, and beyond seasonal allergies and college basketball, that means the FBI’s controversial changes to its FOIA request system are now fully implemented.
For reporters and government transparency advocates, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is an essential tool. Enacted in 1966, the act requires the government to provide answers to specific requests for information, and as any FOIA requester knows, the more specific the better chance of getting what you’re after. As the Columbia Journalism Review observed in a FOIA retrospective, the information gleaned from FOIA requests can be the seed of much larger investigations — “everything from nuclear tests in Alaska to vice-president Spiro Agnew’s resignation, from the last moments of the space shuttle Challenger to the attacks on September 11.”
For the FBI, a popular target for FOIA requests, the new online portal replaces the standard email system. According to the bureau, the new online portal transitions the agency from a manual system to an automated system that will help it handle its large volume of requests, though detractors argue that the new web portal creates additional barriers to those seeking information from the FBI and makes tracking the paper trail more difficult.
Some significant changes have been implemented as the FBI’s Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts (eFOIA/eFOIPA) system exited the beta and went live at the beginning of March. The major changes from beta testing include dropping a requirement for the requester to provide a phone number, removing a cap on how many requests may be submitted per individual and shifting to a 24/7 availability schedule.
To request information using the new eFOIA system, you’ll need to enter and confirm your email address, complete a recaptcha check and agree to a surprisingly bare bones terms of service:
Please read before continuing…
The eFOIPA system allows all types of Freedom of Information/Privacy Act (FOIPA) requests; to include requests on first parties (Privacy Act requests), deceased individuals, policies and procedures, events, organizations, and any other topic.
FOIA responses will be electronically transmitted. Privacy Act responses will not be electronically transmitted. These responses will be sent to you via standard mail.
A valid e-mail address will be required for authentication. The combined file size of all attachments may not exceed 30 megabytes.
The system will then send an automated verification email with a link for filing an eFOIA request. The new online portal requires the filer to provide their organization name, as still requires a mailing address, though as we noted before, phone number is now optional. An FAQ page with some additional basic guidance appears to clear up at least some of the questions that Oregon Senator Ron Wyden posed in an open letter to the FBI last month.
Afraid of change? If you feel more comfortable doing things the really old fashioned way, you can just file your FBI FOIA request by fax or mail, though we wouldn’t exactly recommend it.