OpenITP San Francisco: FOIA Club

Geeks Without Bounds helped facillitate the Open ITP Club meeting at the Noisebridge iteration in San Francisco. We’ve compiled the resources gathered at the event, including videos of the talks and our notes on the event.

Nate Cardozo from EFF spoke on the process of the Freedom of Information Act, commonly referred to as FOIA (note: the first rule of FOIA club is that you must FOIA). Check out his presentation below, and follow along with the slides here.

Important Points
Who can I get the information from?
FOIA is applicable at the federal level, and is not the same as state-level “sunshine acts.” Information must be requested from the appropriate agency (i.e., don’t ask for FBI records from the Dept. of Agriculture). Agencies must respond within 20 working days. Sue after 20 days of inaction, and you MUST appeal if they refuse to release records.

Things you will not get:

  • Classified materials
  • Internal rules or procedures
  • Items excluded by outside laws
  • Trade secrets
  • Intra-agency memoranda and drafts
  • Privacy-related items
  • Law enforcement information
  • Financial records
  • Information on landmines

How do you ask for the records?
The request has to be regarding specific records referencing what you want to know, not the actual question itself.

The 1996 FOIA amendment says that records must be in the best available or native format (Example: The photo itself instead of a photocopy). You can appeal to the DOJ if it is indicated that records are not eligible or don’t exist.

You must send a request to a specific agency/field office to obtain records. Describe your request in detail and for a lay audience. Include any references to records in the media. Ask for expedited processing and reduced fees (if appropriate). Often agencies will work with you to narrow search parameters.

Asking About Yourself: FOIA vs The Privacy Act
Request your own information using the Privacy Act to keep your records from becoming public. A right is everyone’s right, therefore if you FOIA yourself, the waiver you sign makes your records a part of the public domain. In terms of your medical records, HIPAA medical record laws only apply to medical agencies, not other agencies. It allows other agencies to refuse, but does not mandate refusal. The deceased have no privacy rights, but familial survivors have those rights and can block information from being released.

Flash Talks
Immediately following Nate’s presentation were the flash talks on related topics:

Check out the official technoactivism notes on the Open ITP site, and Willow’s visualization of the EFF FOIA talk. Join at the next event March 18th. A participating list of cities is available here, and we’ll be helping with the one in Boston!

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