Getting Ready for a FOIA Request

Learn how Stillio can save you headaches when preparing for Freedom of Information Act requests.

Did you know that any citizen can request certain information from the government? Get to know all about FOIA requests and how to respond to them in this article.

What is FOIA?

FOIA stands for the Freedom of Information Act. As you can understand from the name, its goal is to provide public access to information held by public authorities.

That means that these public authorities need to publish and keep records of information about all their activities and that the public can request information from them.

The FOIA applies only to federal agencies and does not create a right of access to records held by Congress, the courts, or state or local government agencies. Nevertheless, it plays a vital role in public records management.

What information is available under FOIA?

Under FOIA, the general public can access all federal agency records. There are some exceptions and exclusions, of course. The documents or information under these exceptions can be withheld from a requester.

An agency can withhold information if it falls under any of these nine exceptions:

  1. Classified information for national defense or foreign policy
  2. Internal personnel rules and practices
  3. Information that is exempt under other laws
  4. Trade secrets and confidential business information
  5. Inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or letters protected by legal privileges
  6. Personnel and medical files
  7. Law enforcement records or information
  8. Information concerning bank supervision
  9. Geological and geophysical information

There are three other exclusions as well. These are related to sensitive law information, such as information related to criminal law enforcement investigations.

When it comes to everyday online assets, an agency's website and messages and social media are considered official publications and subject to FOIA. So what does that mean? First, that means the public can request information provided on these channels at any given time.

Online content is constantly evolving as we update guidelines, blog content, profiles, and news updates. As a result, you will find new comments or posts every second and deleted or edited content on social media. As a federal agency, you will need to keep records of that information at all times in case there is a request for information regarding social media public records.

Periodically archiving your agency's website is vital to be covered in case of any request. For example, you might feel it isn't necessary because your site does not change, but you can be asked to prove that certain content was there once. Or you're confident your agency won't get a request, but that isn't sure, and you may be caught by surprise, unprepared.

Social media archiving for the government is a must. As mentioned earlier, it's dynamic, and it keeps changing and evolving. So you need to keep near real-time records. That means your official profiles and mentions and interactions with the general public. Personal pages don't fall under social media FOIA unless the posts relate to government conduct and are prepared within a public official's scope of employment or official capacity.

If that happens, they become public records. So be sure to keep a record of your profiles, mentions, interactions, and any other related pages or groups you might use to make any public announcements.

Receiving a request

Any person can file a request, US citizen or not, and there isn't a specific way to do it. The request should be in written form, it must reasonably describe the information sought, and it has to comply with specific agency requirements. When the request is related to personal records, the person should identify themselves to protect their privacy. They can ask for the information to be printed or submitted electronically.

The FOIA does not require agencies to create new records, conduct research, analyze data, or answer questions when responding to requests.

Under the law, all federal agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within 20 business days unless there are "unusual circumstances." This period generally begins when the request is received by the FOIA office of the Department of Justice component that maintains the records sought.

FOIA in other countries

The UK has its Freedom of Information Act, similar to the US. It covers all recorded information held by a public authority. You can check out what the Act defines as a public entity here, and you can also visit the Information Commissioner's Office site for more information on this particular Act.

Australia also has a similar act called Freedom of Information or FOI and provides some great resources for management in the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

When it comes to freedom of information in Canada, there are two separate acts: the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act. The former Act gives Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and any person or corporate agency present in Canada a right to access records of government institutions. The latter gives Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and individuals present in Canada the right to access personal information kept by government institutions. It also protects that information against unauthorized collection, use, retention, and disclosure.

Additionally, each government institution has its Access to Information and Privacy Coordinator, responsible for ensuring that access to information or personal information requests is responded to per the Acts.

That means that the information can be shared, but only if it complies with proper guidelines. There is an online service called Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP), where these two come together for citizens to make requests. The Government of Canada website provides further information to check that out too.

Recordkeeping for compliance

When it comes to what to record and how to archive for FOIA requests, the answer is that you should document everything you can to be safe. For FOIA, the records should be time-stamped and should include a digital signature for certification purposes. But manually performing this task is very difficult since the load is enormous.

Stillio is an automated website screenshot tool that helps you archive entire websites. You can provide the URL of the page you need to capture, set a time interval that can be monthly, weekly, daily, or up to 5 minutes, and the screenshots of that page will be auto-saved. In addition, these captures can be synced to your Dropbox or Google Drive, ready for you to use in an emergency.

As well as archiving everything with Stillio, it is recommended that you keep metadata records, as it provides descriptions and essential facts about any material posted online and is itself machine-readable so that other computers can search for it. This information includes your location, IP address, and more to provide context to the excerpt.

Conclusion

Even if we think FOIA requests can be unlikely, we should always be prepared for them. For any questions regarding Stillio, feel free to book a demo!

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