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FBI Sued for Using 20-Year-Old Software to Slow-Walk FOIA Requests

Researcher Ryan Shapiro has filed a lawsuit against the FBI, charging that it intentionally uses ancient software to thwart Freedom of Information Act requests by delivering slow responses.

The UK Guardian notes that Shaprio’s lawsuit comes on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act. He claims the FBI is using 21-year-old software to comply with FOIA.

Shapiro calls this “failure by design,” as the FBI uses an ancient system called Automated Case Support (ACS) that doesn’t search the full text of its poorly-indexed records. When wheezy old ACS doesn’t return any hits from a request, the FBI shrugs, declares it made a good-faith effort to follow the letter of the Freedom of Information Act, and closes out the inquiry.

Shapiro compared this to using the card catalog at a poorly-managed dead-tree library to search for keywords on the pages of its books — a completely unsurprising exercise in futility. Hits from the ACS system are entirely dependent on FBI agents manually designating the correct keywords for the elderly system’s limited index.

Shapiro backed up his complaint by filing a FOIA request for records of his own FOIA requests and running into “the same roadblocks that stymied his progress in previous inquiries.”

The Guardian quotes Jack Israel, the FBI’s chief technology officer during the Bush Administration, explaining just how old the ACS technology is: “It’s based on an IBM mainframe with legacy database and programming technology, and I would say one of the main things that strikes you as a user of ACS is that you’re dealing with the old IBM green screens. You’re not dealing with a web-based environment, which everyone is used to from the Internet.”

The FBI itself pronounced ACS inadequate after it laid an egg during the 9/11 investigation, calling it “not very effective in identifying information or supporting investigations.”

The kicker is that the FBI has a better system available, a software package called Sentinel that cost the Bureau $425 million, but one it refuses to use it because it would be “needlessly duplicative” of the ACS system that clearly doesn’t work very well. As Shapiro explained, the FBI essentially decided in advance that Sentinel wouldn’t yield better results than ACS, so using the more advanced system would be “wasteful of Bureau resources.”

Techdirt offers a grave assessment of the FBI’s conduct and predicts Shapiro is unlikely to win anything more in court than a somewhat more thorough response to the specific FOIA requests he brings before the judge:

The FBI’s use of an outdated system — seemingly solely for the purpose of generating as few responsive files as possible — is well-documented. And yet, there’s almost no way to force the FBI to perform thorough searches — utilizing the multiple tools and databases it has access to — without dragging the DOJ to court. The FBI knows this, and knows that its unwillingness to utilize its internal FOIA tools is an easy way to discourage FOIA requests, as there are only a few filers with the means to pursue a lawsuit against the government. And any decision by a judge ordering the FBI to perform a more thorough search will be taken by the agency as only applying to the case at hand.

Of course, the FBI will do anything it can to keep Shapiro from obtaining more documents. Shapiro is the FBI’s “mosaic” theory defined. The agency seems to fear his ability to pull together information from multiple, overlapping requests. And the DOJ has gone so far as to claim his dissertation research (involving the government’s handling of animal rights activists) is a threat to national security. So, it will continue fighting for its “right” to deliberately perform inadequate document searches and maintain its non-responsive status quo.

The Next Web notes that Shapiro has already won a favorable judgment from the same D.C. District Court, in which the judge ruled FBI policy is “fundamentally at odds” with FOIA, and the FBI responded by describing the ruling as a “threat to national security.”

“When it comes to FOIA, the FBI is simply not operating in good faith,” Shapiro said in an email to IDG News. “Since the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI has viewed efforts to force bureau compliance with FOIA as a security threat.”

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