This week's FOIA roundup: Detroiters overtaxed millions, the latest in police spyware, and prizes for your best FOIA idea

This week’s FOIA roundup: Detroiters overtaxed millions, the latest in police spyware, and prizes for your best FOIA idea

Stories for and from those working to keep communities informed

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Glory and goodies for your best FOIA idea

If you’re reading this, you believe in keeping important info flowing to the public so we all have an equal shot at being engaged in issues that matter most to each of us. But have you ever tried to put those values to work for you and win some cold hard cash for your best transparency ideas?

Our contest for creative and impactful FOI requests is live! Glory, more than $1000 in cash and prizes, and the chance to encourage impactful stories await, so enter now!

Another federal FOIA portal pops up while another stops disappearing requests

The National Parks Service is no longer taking FOI requests over email, instead forcing those requests to go through a fixed form on its portal. These portals can create a whole new set of issues for requesters, ranging from making it even more difficult to track requests to requiring overly specific forms to unreasonably preventing the submission of permissible requests for info.

The Department of Homeland Security’s portal was losing track of requests late last year, but the Department has confirmed the issue has been fixed.

When you can’t go through, go around

The Detroit News published a blockbuster of a story last week, calculating that the city overtaxed residents for their homes and properties more than $600 million between 2010 and 2017. At least 28,000 Detroit properties overtaxed during that time were lost to tax foreclosure. The News worked on the story for more than a year, in part because the county wouldn’t release property tax records. The County Treasurer, Eric Sabree, wanted $235,000 for the records, relying on a state law allowing officials to charge 25 cents for the information about each property parcel per year.

Christine MacDonald, the Detroit News reporter, worked with independent journalist Mark Bettancourt and Emmanuel Martinez, then a data reporter at Reveal (now on his way to The Markup) to get the records another way. Martinez built a scraper and the story, while delayed, did get out there.

You can read the full story on The Detroit News.

Spying Tombstones

Special Services Group supplies equipment to the DEA, FBI, and local police but doesn’t want to say which equipment. Its website reads, “Due to the critical missions of our customers, we have chosen not to place our product information on our website.” A MuckRock request helped expose some of the covert tools being peddled by the California-based company, including surveillance cameras hidden in tombstones and vacuum cleaners, tools to clone RFID access cards, and tracking devices. It’s not yet clear the circumstances in which police or other law enforcement are using these tools. Vice’s Motherboard wrote about the company’s “Black Book” catalogue, which we received from Irvine Police Department as part of our project on facial recognition technology.

You can read the story on Motherboard and find the original records on MuckRock.

Coming up on MuckRock

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Image via flickr licensed under CC CC BY-SA 2.0.