By James Perkins, Chief Client Officer
Processing a Freedom of Information Act request is a complex and time-consuming task. Federal agencies struggle to keep up with the workload, and the lack of adequate technology often holds them back. As the number of requests and the amount of information to search increase every year, better techniques are necessary.
An agency receiving a request has to provide enough information to satisfy it, and the law says that requests are presumed legitimate unless they fall under an exemption. At the same time, withholding restricted information is often not just permissible but highly important. The FOIA exemptions include national security matters, confidential business information, personal privacy, identification of confidential sources, and more. Certain types of data need to be consistently redacted, such as individuals’ phone numbers and Social Security numbers.
Federal agencies face growing backlogs on FOAI requests. The agencies need more efficient ways to process them and deliver timely responses. The use of eDiscovery can speed up processing while reducing the error rate.
The problem with traditional approaches
Federal agencies often rely heavily on manual processes to find the information relevant to a request. It’s a costly and error-prone process. Information may be scattered across multiple systems that organize their data in different ways. Documents are found in many formats.
Some situations are especially difficult. Scanned images are hard to search. PDF documents may lack a coherent internal structure and yield poor results on text searches.
Email mixes relevant information with personally identifying data. A long email exchange going to multiple mailboxes typically means duplicate information. Archived email is often scattered across individuals’ Outlook PST files, making a systematic search difficult.
Simple text searches won’t find misspellings, variant spellings, and synonyms. They won’t indicate how relevant a match is to the searcher’s intent.
Redaction has to be done the right way. Adding a blackout layer to a PDF document won’t protect the information it hides; someone with a little computer knowledge can remove the blackouts and see what’s under them.
Document metadata may hold invisible confidential information. A photograph’s Exif data could show exactly when and where the picture was taken, making it easier to identify confidential sources. Text documents may contain their editing history and information about the creator and editor.
Unsatisfactory approaches mean bad publicity. An Associated Press report in 2018 stated that 180,824 requests got no information in return. It quoted attorney Adam A. Marshall as saying, “Federal agencies are failing to take advantage of modern technology to store, locate and produce records in response to FOIA requests, and the public is losing out as a result.”
The advantages of eDiscovery
What looks to the media like stonewalling is frequently just a matter of human error, outdated technology, and inadequate resources. Automating the process through eDiscovery makes searching more efficient and reduces the amount of manual work needed. We provide eDiscovery as a FedRAMP authorized provider, doing the work for an agency and returning the results while meeting all confidentiality requirements.
The use of eDiscovery lets an agency meet its deadlines and reduce its backlog. It makes fewer mistakes, whether they consist of disclosing too little or too much. This means fewer appeals and complaints and less bad press. The reduction in manual search effort means a significant decrease in costs.
This doesn’t mean just launching a computer search and blindly delivering whatever it returns. Our legal technologists review the results to make sure they’re relevant and don’t disclose inappropriate information.
Contact us to learn how your agency can upgrade its FOIA processes. With eDiscovery backed by technical and legal experts, it can avoid the twin problems of overlooking essential information and leaking protected information. Citizens will get better results and get them more quickly. Everyone wins.