Right to Know: A Historical Guide to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

Right to Know Day

Information has taken on a whole new meaning in the digital age, a time when sensitive data is either too easily accessible or not accessible enough. This issue of access to information encompasses fundamental human rights – specifically the freedom of speech as well as the right to privacy. Because it’s a primary means of maintaining transparency and accountability within government policies and decision-making in both the United States and around the globe, information is more valuable than ever to both government agencies and our individual lives. This guide takes an in-depth look at FOIA history and the importance of exercising your right to know.

International Right to Know Day: September 28th

September 28th marks International Right to Know Day. What began as a meeting between freedom of information organizations from 15 countries in 2002, has expanded to a global observance supported by more than 200 organizations worldwide. Each year, International Right to Know Day seeks to make people aware of the distinct rights they have to access government information that is essential to “open, democratic societies in which there is full citizen empowerment and participation in government.” Within the United States, those rights come in the form of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

Freedom of Information Act

July 2016, marked not only FOIA’s golden 50-year anniversary, a milestone in Americans’ rights to scrutinize government agency records, but also the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. Together, they remind us that FOIA’s guarantee of access to information was not easily acquired – nor was it a legally binding right. In fact, FOIA’s very creation was highly controversial. And since it has passed, its implementation and execution have continued to present challenges of their own.

1789 Housekeeping Statute

For more than 175 years, the United States relied on what was known as the 1789 Housekeeping Statute. As the U.S. Constitution does not specify policy or procedure for information sharing either among federal bodies or with the public, Congress’ 1789 statute authorized heads of departments to maintain records and to determine how those records would be used.

Although the legislation was considered simply a “housekeeping” measure for a growing nation, opponents of free access even today continue to invoke it in arguments to withhold information – even though a one-line 1959 amendment to the statute specifically states, “This section does not authorize withholding information from the public or limiting the availability of records to the public.”

Administrative Procedure Act of 1946

As the growing nation continued to create agencies and departments, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw the need to once again establish some additional housekeeping rules through the Administrative Procedure Act. According to the act, federal agencies had to maintain records and make them “available to public inspection” – except for “information held confidential for good cause.” Fraught with loopholes, the act gave more cause to withhold information than to share it. However, it did require that agencies:

  • Establish offices where the public could “secure information or make submittals or requests.”
  • Publish formal and informal procedures for information sharing.
  • Make available “instructions as to the scope and contents of all papers, reports, or examinations.”

FOIA Reaction to Cold War Secrecy

Post-World War II, however, conflict assumed new dimensions in the Cold War. Governmental secrecy increasingly frustrated journalists and the public alike. Open demand for information grew, spurred on by Harold Cross’ 1953 publication of The People’s Right To Know and ensuing congressional initiatives led by California’s Democratic Representative John Moss.

On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a signing statement to edify Congress’ fresh, new Freedom of Information Act with limitations. Although his statement asserted that “a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation will provide,” it focused heavily on the fact that “the welfare of the nation or the rights of individuals may require that some documents not be made available.” While reluctantly conceding the act as necessary, Johnson removed many of the act’s teeth exception by exemption. Even so, for the first time, a law had been written with the sole purpose of ensuring public access to federal agency records.

Continue reading Right to Know: A Historical Guide to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) at Ammo.com.

Open This Content

Photo ID is Obsolete and Unnecessary. Facial Recognition Technology Makes it Dangerous.

In mid-May, San Francisco, California became the first American city to ban use of facial recognition surveillance technology by its police department and other city agencies. That’s a wise and ethical policy, as a July 7 piece at the Washington Post proves.

Citing documents gathered by Georgetown Law researchers, the Post reports that at least two federal agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have — for years — mined state photo ID databases to populate their own facial recognition databases.

To put a finer point on it, those agencies have been conducting warrantless searches, seizing private biometric data on the entire population of the United States, most of whom are neither charged with, nor suspected of committing, a crime.

They’ve conducted these fishing expeditions not just without warrants, but absent even the fig leaf of legislation from Congress or state legislatures to lend supposed legitimacy to the programs.

The Post story, intentionally or not, makes it clear that Congress must follow San Francisco’s example and ban use of facial recognition technology, as well as repeal its national photo ID (“REAL ID”) scheme, and require federal agencies to delete their facial recognition databases. The states should either lead the way or follow suit by doing away with government-issued photo identification altogether.

Photo ID has always been marginally useful at best. Anyone who’s ever worked at a bar or liquor store knows that it’s unreliable on a visual check — and that its uses have been stretched far beyond its supposed purposes.

The most common form of photo ID is the driver’s license. States imposed their licensing schemes on a seemingly justifiable pretext: A driver’s license proves that the driver whose photograph appears on it has taken and passed a test demonstrating safety and proficiency behind the wheel.

There are ways to do that without a photo.  Three that come to mind are a fingerprint, a digitized summary of an iris scan, or a similar summary of a DNA scan.

Yes, those methods are more expensive and impose a slightly higher burden on law enforcement in identifying a driver who’s been pulled over or arrested (and on anyone else who wants to confirm an individual’s identity). But they’re also far more reliable and less easily used in pulling police-state type abuses like those described in the Post story. They can’t be used for easy warrantless searches via distant cameras.

In recent decades, and especially since 9/11, the conversation over personal privacy has revolved around how much of that privacy “must” be sacrificed to make law enforcement’s job easier.

The answer to that question is “none.”

It’s not an American’s job to make law enforcement’s job easier. It’s law enforcement’s job to respect that American’s rights.

Since law enforcement has continuously  proven itself both unwilling and untrustworthy on that count, we need to deprive it of tools that enable that unwillingness and untrustworthiness.

Photo ID is obsolete and unnecessary. Facial recognition technology makes it dangerous. Let’s take those tools away from their abusers.

Open This Content

Historically Hollow: The Cries of Populism

History textbooks are full of populist complaints about business: the evils of Standard Oil, the horrors of New York tenements, the human body parts in Chicago meatpacking plants.  To be honest, I haven’t taken these complaints seriously since high school.  In the absence of abundant evidence to the contrary, I say the backstory behind these populist complaints is just neurotic activists searching for dark linings in the silver clouds of business progress.  When business offers new energy, new housing, new food, the wise are grateful to see the world improve, not outraged to see a world that falls short of perfection.

Still, I periodically wonder if my nonchalance is unjustified.  Populists rub me the wrong way, but how do I know they didn’t have a point?  After all, I have near-zero first-hand knowledge of what life was like in the heyday of Standard Oil, New York tenements, or Chicago meat-packing.  What would I have thought if I was there?

If we’re talking about the year 1900, I’m afraid we’ll never really know.  Yet what I’ve seen with my own eyes during the last fifteen years has done much to cement my out-of-sample confidence.

During this time, I’ve seen the tech industry dramatically improve human life all over the world.

Amazon is simply the best store that ever existed, by far, with incredible selection and unearthly convenience.  The price: cheap.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media let us socialize with our friends, comfortably meet new people, and explore even the most obscure interests.  The price: free.

Uber and Lyft provide high-quality, convenient transportation.  The price: really cheap.

Skype is a sci-fi quality video phone.  The price: free.

Youtube gives us endless entertainment.  The price: free.

Google gives us the totality of human knowledge!  The price: free.

That’s what I’ve seen.  What I’ve heard, however, is totally different.  The populists of our Golden Age are loud and furious.  They’re crying about “monopolies” that deliver firehoses worth of free stuff.  They’re bemoaning the “death of competition” in industries (like taxicabs) that governments forcibly monopolized for as long as any living person can remember.  They’re insisting that “only the 1% benefit” in an age when half of the high-profile new businesses literally give their services away for free.   And they’re lashing out at businesses for “taking our data” – even though five years ago hardly anyone realized that they had data.

My point: If your overall reaction to business progress over the last fifteen years is even mildly negative, no sensible person will try to please you, because you are impossible to please.  Yet our new anti-tech populists have managed to make themselves a center of pseudo-intellectual attention.

Angry lamentation about the effects of new tech on privacy has flabbergasted me the most.  For practical purposes, we have more privacy than ever before in human history.  You can now buy embarrassing products in secret.  You can read or view virtually anything you like in secret.  You can interact with over a billion people in secret.

Then what privacy have we lost?  The privacy to not be part of a Big Data Set.  The privacy to not have firms try to sell us stuff based on our previous purchases.  In short, we have lost the kinds of privacy that no prudent person loses sleep over.

The prudent will however be annoyed that – thanks to populist pressure – we now have to click “I agree” fifty times a day to access our favorite websites.  Implicit consent was working admirably, but now we all have to suffer to please people who are impossible to please.  Yes, tech firms made a business decision to ramp up privacy protections; but this business decision is tainted by a barrage of thinly-veiled threats of government persecution.  In a functional world, we would have a few start-ups catering to privacy fanatics – and the rest of us could enjoy the bounty of the tech industry without this absurd digital red tape.

How, though, do I logically leap from the unreliability of populists on tech to the unreliability of populists on business in general?  After all, anyone can make a mistake.  My reply: Being negative about the tech industry isn’t just a small, isolated mistake.  Populists are applying massive intellectual energy to major issues and ending up painfully wrong.  This is strong evidence that their whole way of thinking is deeply corrupt.  They don’t deserve our trust or attention – not today, not yesterday, and not tomorrow.

Open This Content

Edward Snowden: The Untold Story of How One Patriotic American Exposed NSA Surveillance

I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom, and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building… the NSA specifically targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default… they are intent on making every conversation and every form of behavior in the world known to them.

-Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden might not yet be a historical figure, but he certainly is a hero. He is the whistleblower of all whistleblowers, the American who blew the lid off of Washington’s spying on private citizens. But Snowden’s leak revealed that it’s not just the U.S. government that is spying on virtually every American – big American telecommunications companies are also helping them to spy as well.

Snowden’s upbringing is largely uneventful. His maternal grandfather was a Coast Guard rear admiral and his father was also an officer in the Coast Guard. His mother was a U.S. District Court clerk. His parents divorced around the time that he would have graduated high school in 2001, but Snowden is a high school dropout. After a nine-month absence due to mononucleosis, he simply took the GED exam and then began taking community college classes. Despite a lack of a bachelor’s degree, he worked at a master’s online from the University of Liverpool.

Snowden had a keen interest in Japanese popular culture, and even worked for an anime company early on in his career.

Continue reading Edward Snowden: The Untold Story of How One Patriotic American Exposed NSA Surveillance at Ammo.com.

Open This Content

Laws Are Creating Immigration Issue

Imagine you have an antique car in your back yard behind a privacy fence. A neighbor climbs your fence, sees the car, and decides something must be done about it. How he decided your property is his concern is a mystery. Clearly, he’s a bad neighbor who doesn’t mind his own business.

Then it gets worse. He doesn’t ask about the car, offer to buy it or to help you get it running. Instead, he hires the local crime boss to force you to build a shed for the car, paint it pink, give it square wheels, and pay an annual ransom for the privilege of owning it. Or else it will be taken from you and you’ll be punished.

This is how government solves problems. Very often these problems shouldn’t even be government’s business, even if it’s possible to apply a law or two to the situation.

If you are waiting for government to solve a problem you are wasting time.

If you imagine problems where none exist, you are the problem.

This is why most political discussion is, at best, misguided.

People debate how government should address health care when government shouldn’t be involved in health care at all. Don’t insist government come up with a health care plan, demand it gets out of the way.

Easily manipulated people panic over “climate change.” Even if it’s a net negative and your fault, don’t ask government to make up laws to violate your life, liberty, and property to fight it. It’s not government’s business. Don’t soil your own nest with pollution or laws.

People argue over immigration, border walls, and sanctuary cities when the Constitution doesn’t allow the federal government to keep people out of the country. Yes, it outlines steps for people already here to become citizens and regulates the importation of slaves, but those are not what people argue about.

Government laws create the immigration issue. Don’t look to government and its laws to address immigration; insist government stop criminalizing private property rights, the right to self-defense, and the right of association.

Everyone has the right to associate with — or avoid — anyone for any reason. Laws that force people together or apart are the problem.

Anything you ask government to address gives government more power. Government employees feed on this power like vampires feed on arterial blood. You won’t solve a problem — real or imagined — by involving those who use problems as an excuse to gain power.

Open This Content

Assange, Trump, and Obama

Yes, president Trump is doing the wrong thing by not dropping all charges against Julian Assange immediately. Very wrong.

Yet, had Obama done the right thing– and he had plenty of time and opportunity to do so– this wouldn’t even be up to Trump. He could have ended this years ago. He is every bit as much to blame. This isn’t just another Trump crime, it’s an Obama crime, too.

Presidents are cancer. Assange is a cure, as are all whistleblowers. Of course presidents are not going to be fans of his.

Coincidentally, and with amazing timing, Ammo.com just sent me a link to their newest: A Historical Guide to the Freedom of Information Act.

It’s perverse that government believes they have a “right” to decide whether or not (usually not) to let you know what they are up to, and that your right to know what these parasites are up to needs an “act” to codify it and give them excuses to hide things. The very notion that anyone working for government has any “right to privacy” where their “job” is concerned is absurd. But this is the world of statists we live in.

Open This Content