This Week’s FOIA Round-up: FOIA in the impeachment report, MA robot police dogs, and your neighbor’s Ring might let the police spy on you

This Week’s FOIA Round-up: FOIA in the impeachment report, MA robot police dogs, and your neighbor’s Ring might let the police spy on you

Also: Foreign service officers forced to review FOIA requests, Chicago PD’s social media spying, and the National AI Commission learns it is an “agency”

Written by
Edited by Beryl Lipton

Read a great FOIA-based news story we should highlight? Let us know and maybe we can include it in our next round-up! Send it over via email, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Trouble in Trumpland

Stories concerning the Trump administration dominated the FOIA news ecosystem this week. Here are some of them:

State Department FOIA makes impeachment appearance

The House Intelligence Committee Impeachment Report cited a FOIA lawsuit that forced the State Department to release records to ethics watchdog American Oversight. This—in conjunction with the Department’s refusal to “produce a single document in response to its subpoena”—was used to support the argument that the Department was “withholding responsive documents from Congress without any valid legal basis.”

The State Department records referenced in the report can be found here. The requested records include “external communications with the president’s personal attorneys, including Rudy Giuliani, regarding efforts to influence the Ukrainian government to investigate the president’s political opponents,” as well as “any final directives related to the recall of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, a career official, from Ukraine.”

That isn’t the end of the State Department’s worries. A federal judge is considering whether to order the Department to release even more records to American Oversight, including communications between former State Department envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, and other State Department officials.

Read the House Intelligence Committee Report here, American Oversight’s State Department records here, and more from Spencer Hsu at the Washington Post here.

Nostalgic for media coverage of Hillary’s emails? We’ve got you covered.

American Oversight also used FOIA to reveal that in 2017, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley had sent “confidential” information via an email system only meant for unclassified material. Haley’s reasoning for the lapse in security was that she couldn’t find her password “for the high side.” Critics have pointed out the parallels between this story and the Hillary Clinton email scandal, of which the Trump administration has been particularly critical.

Read more from Christopher Dickey at The Daily Beast here.

Julia Ioffe reported in GQ that under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, foreign service officers who finished their assignments overseas were told that they had two options: review FOIA requests or retire. Thanks to Judicial Watch requests, that job mostly involved going through Hillary Clinton’s emails, according to two foreign service officers cited by Ioffe.

Read more from Julia Ioffe at GQ here.

Other important Trump administration news

A second installment of FBI 302 reports from the Mueller investigation have been obtained through FOIA and released by BuzzFeed News.

The Justice Department released the reports, which summarize interviews conducted by the Mueller team, in response to a court order. BuzzFeed has already found important stories in these documents, and they invite readers to help search the rest of the documents.

Read more from Jason Leopold, Kate Nocera, Sarah Mimms, Anthony Cormier, Ellie Hall, and Emma Loop at BuzzFeed News here.

Financial disclosure forms submitted by former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker must be released, according to a federal judge’s order. The ruling came after a lawsuit filed by Buzzfeed. The DOJ argued that the records were exempt from release “because they were revised through a ‘deliberative process,’ and that they contain private financial information.”

Read more from Josh Gerstein at Politico here.

David Bier at the CATO Institute used FOIA to support immigration activist groups’ contentions that the Trump administration “artificially reduced the capacity of ports without any reduction in resources for ports.” While Customs and Border Patrol staff and resources have increased substantially, the number of asylum seekers deemed “inadmissible” has remained somewhat constant over the last 3 years.

Read more from David Bier at the CATO institute here.

Tech and Law Enforcement: A Match Made In Secret

Chicago Police Use Social Media for Surveillance

Documents obtained by the ACLU of Illinois, OneZero, and the frequent MuckRock users at the Lucy Parsons Labs show that the Chicago Police Department uses social media to gather information on the friends and families of victims of gun violence. One Zero wrote:

“Though the surveillance is conducted in an effort to gather further information about shootings, police officers also gather public social media content from individuals who apparently have little or nothing to do with the crime.”

Key to this process are Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) officers, who comb through social media to aid in investigative efforts. Additionally, this practice contributes to Chicago PD’s use of a Strategic Subject List (SSL), a computer model that predicts whether an individual is more likely to commit or be the victim of a crime. One of the factors SSL considers is the number of times someone has been the victim of a shooting incident.

Read more from Elizabeth King at OneZero here.

Amazon’s Ring and the police team up

Frequent MuckRock user Caroline Haskins reported on home security company Ring’s efforts to cozy up to law enforcement agencies. This includes, among other things, throwing parties for police that feature open bars, free food, live music, and in one instance, Shaquille O’Neal. As Haskins puts it, “Ring…wants to brand itself a friend of police, the antidote to fear of crime, and a proponent of law and order.”

Ring’s partnerships with police departments aren’t merely symbolic, however. Documents obtained by Motherboard tell the story of what this actually means:

“They describe the typical relationship as a simple transaction: police get a portal where they can request footage from Ring’s network of private surveillance cameras, and the company gets the promotional muscle of the police.”

What’s perhaps even more interesting is that it seems to be working. Ring has made over 600 partnerships with law enforcement agencies since 2016, and there has been little public debate about what Haskins calls a “quiet” expansion of a surveillance system owned by a component of Amazon—the same company pushing its privacy-compromising Echo devices into millions of American homes.

Read more from Caroline Haskins at Motherboard here.

Robot Dogs Make Their Police Debut

Documents obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts show that Massachusetts State Police’s bomb squad used Boston Dynamics’ Spot for three months, making it the first law enforcement agency in the country to use the dog-like robot in real-life operations.

A police spokesperson said that the Spot robots were used as “mobile remote observation devices,” helping officers observe suspicious devices or dangerous situations.

Boston Dynamics Vice President for Business Development Michael Perry explained that the company was aware of public concerns about robot police dogs let loose in their cities. Spot lease agreements include that the robots not be used to “physically harm or intimidate people.”

Not everyone is convinced, though. Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, points out the lack of a policy on how the police should use robots. In regards to the state police’s use of Spot, Crockford said:

Read more from Ally Jarmanning at WBUR News here.

Judge Informs AI Commission it is, in fact, an “Agency”

Not all the news is bad. On December 3rd, a federal court ruled that the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence must comply with FOIA requests. The decision came via a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a “public interest research center” that fights to “protect privacy, freedom of expression, and democratic values in the information age.”

The AI Commission was established by Congress in 2018 and is run by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. It initially ignored EPIC’s FOIA request, seemingly because it did not think FOIA applied to it. Key to the court’s decision was the establishment that the AI Commission was, in fact, an “agency” subject to FOIA.

Read more from EPIC here.

Read a great FOIA-based news story we should highlight? Let us know and maybe we can include it in our next round-up! Send it over via email, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Image via the Department of Justice