DOJ Accused of Deliberately Using Old Tech for FOIA Requests

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The US Justice Department allegedly uses outdated tech to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests.

FOIA, a federal law allowing the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information controlled by the government, requires that agencies "make reasonable efforts" to search for records in electronic format.

But researcher Ryan Shapiro—considered by the DOJ to be the "most prolific" FOIA requester—claims that the DOJ deliberately obstructs public requests, The Guardian reports. Now, on the 50th anniversary of FOIA's passage, the activist-turned-academic is suing the Justice Department.

According to The Guardian, FOIA requests sent to the federal department are processed via two-decade-old software: The Automated Case Support system (ACS) celebrated its 21st birthday this year.

What's worse, the FBI allegedly refuses to search the full text "as a matter of policy," Shapiro told the UK newspaper, adding that the bureau simply overlooks more sophisticated search tools—like the $425 million Sentinel software launched in 2012.

"The FBI's assertion is akin to suggesting that a search of a limited and arbitrarily produced card catalogue at a vast library is as likely to locate book pages containing a specified search term as a full text search of database containing digitized versions of all the books in that library," Shapiro said.

Earlier this year, a US district judge ruled that the FBI's policy is "fundamentally at odds" with the FOIA statute. The court sided with Shapiro, who claimed the agency unlawfully and systematically meddled with legitimate requests for information about how well it was complying with the Freedom of Information Act.

This time, the MIT PhD student built his case by asked for records of his own requests, which hit the same obstacles as his previous attempt.

The FBI and DOJ declined to comment on the pending litigation.

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