The FBI’s new online FOIA portal is now live

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.

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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.

Apple, FBI to Clash Again in US Congress Over Encryption

Apple, FBI to Clash Again in US Congress Over Encryption

Apple Inc and the FBI will return to Congress next week to testify before lawmakers about their heated disagreement over law enforcement access to encrypted devices, a congressional committee announced on Thursday.

Apple’s general counsel, Bruce Sewell, and Amy Hess, executive assistant director for science and technology at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, will testify on separate panels before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Tuesday, in addition to other law enforcement officials and technology experts.

FBI Director James Comey appeared before a separate congressional committee last month to defend his agency’s pursuit of a court order to compel Apple’s assistance in unlocking an iPhone linked to one of the San Bernardino, California, shooters. Sewell also testified at that hearing.

The FBI has since abandoned the San Bernardino case, a surprising development that came after a still-secret third party helped the government hack into the iPhone.

But the US Justice Department redoubled its efforts last week to use the courts to force Apple’s cooperation in cracking encrypted iPhones by announcing plans to continue with an appeal in an unrelated New York drug case.

Other witnesses appearing include Thomas Galati, chief of the New York Police Department’s intelligence bureau; Charles Cohen, commander of the Indiana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force; and Matthew Blaze, a professor and computer security expert at the University of Pennsylvania.

Earlier this week, two US senators released draft legislation that would empower courts to order technology companies to hand over data “in an intelligible format,” even if encryption has rendered that data inaccessible to anyone other than the owner.

Security researchers and civil liberties advocates say the bill amounts to a ban on strong encryption, which is necessary to keep malicious hackers at bay and protect the overall security of the Internet.

FBI Yet to Find Links to Foreign Terrorists on San Bernardino iPhone

FBI Yet to Find Links to Foreign Terrorists on San Bernardino iPhone

The FBI has found no links to foreign terrorists on the iPhone of a San Bernardino, California, terrorist but is still hoping that an ongoing analysis could advance its investigation into the mass shooting in December, US law enforcement officials said.

For instance, geolocation data found on the phone might yet yield clues into the movements of the shooters in the days and weeks before the attack, officials said. The bureau is also trying to figure out what the shooters did in an 18-minute period following the shooting.

Investigators knew all along that finding important clues on the phone, which was a work phone owned by San Bernardino County, was a long shot, officials said, but they wanted to make sure their inquiry was thorough.

“For the FBI to competently investigate a mass murder that happened in the United States, we believed we had to use all lawful tools to find out whether there was evidence on that phone that either shed more light on what these two killers had done,” FBI Director James B. Comey said at Ohio’s Kenyon College last week.

Last month, a third party – professional hackers who hunt software flaws to sell – demonstrated to the bureau a method for unlocking the Apple iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the shooters in the attack that killed 14 people.

The method proved successful, officials said, but it has not so far turned up anything that sheds new light on the motive of Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, or whether they were plotting other attacks or had other associates. The couple were killed in a shootout with police after the attack on a county facility in San Bernardino.

The lack of significant information on Farook’s phone was first reported by CBS News.

The phone was one of three recovered by the bureau. Two were damaged beyond repair, and the third, Farook’s iPhone 5c running an iOS 9 operating system, was locked with a personal identification number that Apple could not bypass or unlock. The phone also had security features, including one that would delete all the data on the phone if more than 10 incorrect guesses at the PIN are made. Another feature imposed delays of increasing duration between guesses.

In particular, the bureau wanted to know if there was data on the phone that was not backed up in Apple’s servers. Farook had stopped backing up the phone to those servers in October, six weeks before the attack.

The bureau has not commented on the identity of the individuals who helped the US government crack Farook’s phone.

“The people we bought this from – I know a fair amount about them, and I have a high degree of confidence that they are very good at protecting” the solution, Comey said.

The FBI’s analysis of the phone’s data so far is consistent with Comey’s statement in December that the bureau had not uncovered any ties between the shooters and foreign terrorist organizations.

Last week, FBI General Counsel James A. Baker was asked at a privacy conference whether the data found on the phone was “worth the fight” over unlocking the phone that the government and Apple engaged in. That fight ended when the third party came forward.

“It was worth the fight to make sure that we have turned over every rock that we can with respect to the investigation,” Baker said. “We owe it to the victims and the families to make sure that we have pursued every logical lead.”