Tomorrow’s Hearing Will Be Quite Interesting…

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Thanks to the Electronic Frontier Foundation for this….

Tomorrow the House Oversight Committee is holding a hearing titled, “Why Isn’t the Department of Homeland Security Meeting the President’s Standard on FOIA?” As we wrote last October, redacted DHS emails revealed the agency was targeting certain Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and certain FOIA requesters—such as activist groups, watchdog organizations, and journalists—for an extra layer of review by politically-appointed officials within and outside the agency. The emails further revealed EFF was one of the organizations explicitly targeted, and three of our FOIA requests are mentioned specifically. Given the delay between when we filed these FOIA requests and when we finally received records, we assume our requests and the documents produced in response to them went through this extra vetting.

The Oversight Committee is expected to investigate all this at the hearing tomorrow. However, we now think the problem may be much larger than either the emails indicated or we first thought. Since we wrote that blog post, we have learned through litigation in our social networking FOIA case that not only did DHS drag its feet on producing documents, the agency also failed to release all documents it had that were responsive to our request. In conversations with the DOJ attorney representing the government, we have recently learned that DHS likely has a “voluminous production” of additional documents concerning how the agency uses social networking sites that it has yet to produce to us.

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EFF Enters GIS Fray

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Last week, EFF joined a coalition of public interest and media groups in filing an amicus brief (pdf) urging a California Court of Appeal to uphold the public’s right to access electronic files created and stored by local governments. The case, Sierra Club v. Superior Court, focuses on the public’s right to access geographic information system (GIS) basemaps created by local governments in California.

GIS basemaps integrate basic property information such as parcel boundaries, addresses, and other property data. Additional information can then be “layered” on top of the basemaps, enabling users to understand, interpret, and visualize data in ways that simply aren’t possible through the rows and columns of a spreadsheet. Individuals and organizations then use these maps for a variety of innovative purposes — for example, scientists use them, journalists and the media use them, and public interest organizations use them(pdf).

The Sierra Club filed a request under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) for Orange County’s property information — information the County used and maintained in a GIS format. The Sierra Club requested the GIS basemap as part of its mission to protect open spaces in California: using the basemaps, the Sierra Club makes detailed maps of proposed real estate developments and suggests possible alternatives to those developments. The County, however, refused to turn over the information in the requested GIS format, despite its obligation under California law to provide public records in “any electronic format in which it holds the information.” Instead, the County offered to provide the property information in a pdf, even though the Countyalready had the information available in GIS format.

Orange County claimed that information stored in GIS format is exempt from disclosure under the “software exception” of the CPRA. While the CPRA does exempt government entities from disclosing “computer software developed by a state or local agency,” public information processed or formatted for that software is not exempt. Coupled with the County’s obligation to provide public records in the format requested, it seems clear that Orange County is illegally withholding its GIS basemap from the Sierra Club.

 

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