Freedom of Information Act:

Freedom of Information Act:

Copyright(c), 1990, 1995 Fred Cohen - All Rights Reserved

The freedom of information act is a law passed by the US congress in the 1970s that was intended to assure that information about individuals held by the government would be made available to individuals upon their request. The law was initially very strong, but had a fundamental weakness in that it allows exceptions to be made for classified or other sensitive information. The problem is that anything that might be embarrassing could be classified and thus those who might be embarrassed by it have a means to stifle the rights of others to assure the accuracy of information about them.

The law provides for the process of disseminating information by requiring that each government agency have its own freedom of information act office. Each office is manned by an administrator and has an internal appeals process by which a denial to provide information may be appealed. If this appeal fails, the process can be brought to federal court. There are time deadlines for the replies to inquiries by these offices, and the people working in these offices are personally liable for assuring that information is only released properly.

In practice, this multiplicity of offices tends to introduce more problems than it eliminates. It is quite expensive in that it requires a massive duplication of function in every government agency, and it makes it very difficult for an individual to attain all of the information from all of the offices. There are over 50 such offices, and it is difficult to even get the official list of where to send requests for information. Each office has two addresses, one for requests, and the other for appeals, but there is no sure way to guarantee that answers to requests are accurate without going to court and thus an expensive and timely legal process.

Another problem with the freedom of information act is that it is possible for businesses to find out information about other businesses by requesting all of the information gathered by a given agency. It is apparently a common practice to get copies of data about other companies and use them to business advantage (e.g. get a plan for the next five years of government sponsored research). There is a provision that confidential information must be kept confidential by the agency, but the process by which information must be marked in order to assure confidentiality involves a set of government regulations that only very few companies are aware of and able to implement at reasonable cost. A violation of these rules could result in a loss of confidentiality, and there is no way to determine whether this has happened. In fact, there is no way to tell what other companies have had access to your information except through court actions, and there is usually no basis for a court action unless the information is available.

A major problem with the freedom of information act is that agencies can attain waivers for certain types of information by publishing their specification for waiver in the federal register, and waiting some number of days for comment (60 days I believe). If no counteraction is taken, and if the congress or courts don't override the waiver, it is in effect for an indefinite period. When the law was first enacted, these waivers were hard to come by, and required quite explicit information about what information was to be included in the waiver, but as time passed and the political climate changed, several agencies were able to attain waivers for essentially all of their information (e.g. the state department, the NSA, etc.). Once a waiver is issued, there is no revocation process, and thus we can expect that the system will tend towards a state where there is no longer freedom of information except as deemed appropriate by those who hold the information. This is just the situation we had before the law was invoked, so in essence, we have paid a great deal of money for a service that is hard to use, expensive to verify, and of declining value.