Sen. Wyden presses for more answers as FBI responds to questions about its new FOIA system

In the face of criticism around its new FOIA process, the FBI moved to clarify some questions surrounding the online portal that will replace its existing process starting March 1.

The FOIA changes, initially reported by the Daily Dot earlier this week, set off a chain of controversy that on Friday made it all the way to Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, an established voice in online privacy. In an open letter to the FBI, Wyden criticized the new system, which the FBI will implement in place of a standard email request system, calling for reform to the online FOIA system, which is currently in beta:

“While it is admirable that the FBI has sought to make it easier to receive and process FOIA requests, there are a number of limitations with the online portal,” Wyden wrote. “I urge you to remedy these unnecessary limits on FOIA submissions and continue to accept email submissions, absent a portal capable of accepting all FOIA requests.”

Wyden’s main criticisms are the portal’s 3,000 character limit, its use of CAPTCHA to prevent automated requests, questions about the location of the individual filing the request (FOIA is not legally limited to U.S. citizens) and its potential limitation on requests for FBI internal communications. While some of the broader initial concerns about the web portal have been clarified, Wyden’s specific concerns appear to remain at this time.

In a conversation with TechCrunch, an FBI spokesperson indicated that some of this week’s controversy may have resulted from a lack of a wide statement about the portal’s mission, noting that changes between the beta and launch versions of the eFOIPA portal are not a response to the criticism of the new system within the last week. The spokesperson stated that the changes were part of an overhaul that has been in the works for at least two years.

The FBI explained the reasoning behind the move from email to a proprietary portal system in a separate statement:

“With this full implementation, eFOIA will provide the FBI with an automated process for the receipt and opening of requests, replacing the current manual process and substantially reducing the time it takes to receive and open each electronic request received. Given the FBI’s high volume of requests, this will significantly increase efficiency.”

Further, the agency clarified that when the service exits beta, the terms of service will feature significant changes. Those include the ability to upload attachments, support for an unlimited amount of requests with no cap on how many requests an individual can submit and dropping the requirement of a phone number for the individual filing a request. The portal will not be limited to particular hours as was initially reported and instead will remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The system will allow “requests of all types,” including “Privacy Act, deceased individuals, policies/procedures, events and organizations,” according to the FBI.

The agency pointed out a few other features that the online portal system would provide for FOIA filers:

• Digital confirmation directly on their email account.
• No longer have to wait for responses to be received using standard mail.
• View transmitted responses and releases from the convenience of their smartphone or tablet.

With increased public interest around government transparency, it remains to be seen if these perks will be enough to satisfy the new system’s high-profile critics.