FOIA Gallery 2017
The Freedom of Information Act establishes a legal right for individuals to obtain records in the possession of government agencies. The FOIA is critical for the functioning of democratic government because it helps ensure that the public is fully informed about matters of public concern. The FOIA has helped uncover fraud, waste, and abuse in the federal government.
A hallmark of the new surveillance measures proposed by various government agencies is their disregard for public accountability. As the government seeks to expand its power to collect information about individuals, it increasingly hides that surveillance power behind a wall of secrecy. Congress has long recognized this tendency in the Executive Branch, and sought to limit government secrecy by creating legal obligations of openness under the FOIA and the Privacy Act of 1974. EPIC has used these open government laws aggressively to enable public oversight of potentially invasive surveillance initiatives.
Public awareness of our government's activity through the FOIA not only allows for a more informed public debate over new surveillance proposals, but also ensures accountability for government officials. Public debate fosters the development of more robust security systems and leads to solutions that better respect the nation's democratic values. EPIC's FOIA litigation over the past year has resulted in disclosure of information about several government surveillance programs. Our litigation has also generated case law that benefits the FOIA requesters and the open government community across the country.
EPIC's FOIA Work in 2016
For EPIC's open government project, 2016 was a year filled with great success stories. Through vigorous and effective litigation, EPIC bolstered its record as a champion for a more open and transparent government. It is undeniable that EPIC added to the public debate by uncovering government documents. In 2016, EPIC obtained records from government agencies including the DHS, FAA, and the DOJ.
EPIC also launched a weekly class to teach the basics of the federal Freedom of Information Act, available at epicfoia.org.
As a result of FOIA lawsuit EPIC v. DOJ, EPIC successfully obtained nonpublic reports from the Department of Justice's Inspector General. The DOJ IG conducts investigations, evaluations, and audits for the agency, which facilitate transparency and public understanding of the measures taken to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the DOJ. IG reports are critical to agency accountability yet, despite their importance, not all IG reports are made public. The documents EPIC obtained include audits of drug control funds, audits of grant programs, and information security audits conducted since 2005. EPIC also obtained a review of a state lab's DNA database.
As a result of FOIA lawsuit EPIC v. DEA, EPIC revealed that the Drug Enforcement Administration never completed privacy impact assessments for the agency's massive license plate reader program, a telecommunications records database, and other systems of public surveillance. The federal agency is required by law to perform these privacy assessments. Despite a federal judge ordering the agency to search for records in response to the FOIA lawsuit, the DEA failed to produce the privacy assessments required by law.
As a result of a FOIA lawsuit, EPIC obtained hundreds of documents from Customs and Border Protection about a controversial data mining program used to build profiles on travelers. "Analytical Framework for Intelligence" is the agency’s program that assigns "risk assessment" scores to travelers using personally identifiable information from a variety of sources, including government databases, commercial data brokers, and other Internet sources. The documents obtained by EPIC include program training materials, contracts, and more. EPIC v. CBP was featured in an article on The Verge detailing the CBP program.
EPIC was awarded substantial attorneys' fees after securing a victory in a FOIA case against the Department of Homeland Security. In 2012, EPIC sued DHS for information about the "Cyber Pilot" program, a secret collaboration between DHS, the Department of Defense, and businesses to allow government monitoring of private internet networks. EPICs lawsuit secured the release of several thousand pages on the program, including a presentation in which DOD advised private industry on how to best circumvent federal wiretap law. In an extensive opinion, the D.C. District Court concluded that EPIC "substantially prevailed in this litigation” and credited EPIC with “generating useful new information” about a matter of public concern. “Obviously, issues of national security and privacy are of enormous public importance,” Judge Kessler wrote. “EPIC has shown that its lawsuit ‘add[ed] to the fund of information that citizens may use in making vital political choices.’”
EPIC filed two FOIA suits to uncover details of the Russian interference with the 2016 Presidential election. During the 2016 election season, Russia carried out a multi-pronged attack intended to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process,” according to a report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In EPIC v. FBI, EPIC is seeking records related to the FBI's response to the cyber attack on U.S. political organizations. In EPIC v. ODNI, EPIC is seeking release of the complete ODNI assessment of the Russian interference following the ODNI’s release of only a limited, declassified version to the public.
EPIC Uncovers Google’s Secret Attempt to Narrow FCC Privacy Protections, Exclude Customer IP Addresses
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by EPIC, the Federal Communications Commission released communications about the FCC’s broadband privacy rulemaking. One of the key proposals for the privacy rules concerns the scope of consumer data covered by the rule, such as a customer’s IP address. The documents obtained by EPIC revealed an email exchange between Google’s Vinton Cerf and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled Google’s backdoor effort to narrow the scope of the proposed rules to exclude privacy protections for customers’ IP addresses.
EPIC successfully obtained two years’ worth of statistical data detailing the FBI’s biometric identification program as the result of a FOIA request. Next Generation Identification (“NGI”) is one of the largest biometric databases in the world. The database stores a broad range of individuals' biometric data - such as fingerprints, iris scans, palm prints, and photographs - and uses facial recognition capabilities to analyze collected images. The documents obtained by EPIC reveal expanding biometric collection by the FBI, and show that the agency is collecting biographical and biometric data on potentially millions of civilians for purposes not associated with criminal justice. The documents were also featured in The Intercept’s recent review of NGI.
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, EPIC obtained documents revealing that the FAA never finished a report ordered by Congress on the privacy implications of “unmanned aircraft systems” - better known as drones. The Appropriations Act of 2014 required the FAA to inform Congress on “how the FAA can address the impact of widespread use of [drones] on individual privacy.” Mindful that the FAA plays a “unique role” in civil aviation, Congress called for the agency to conduct a study on the implications of UAS integration into the national airspace on individual privacy.” But internal emails obtained by EPIC show that the agency never finished the study.
As a result of the FOIA lawsuit EPIC v. DOT, EPIC obtained a batch of previously secret documents documents demonstrating that the government’s secret drone task force ignored public concerns about drone surveillance. The FAA’s Drone Registration Task Force was tasked with developing recommendations for the drone registration process. After agency officials and industry representatives met privately in November 2015, EPIC filed suit and obtained over one hundred pages of records detailing the secret meeting. While integration of drones into the airspace raises substantial privacy concerns, the documents EPIC received include opening remarks by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta urging the task force to take into consideration “the interests of all stakeholders”. Nonetheless, the agency declined to invite any privacy or consumer advocates to the closed door meetings.