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3 Reasons Government Agencies Need Ediscovery for FOIA Requests

by Angela Kovach

BW court columns

Individuals and organizations have made record numbers of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to U.S. government entities in recent years. Since 2013, the Department of Justice has been fielding more than 70,000 FOIA requests seeking federal documents and personal data annually. 

The Freedom of Information Act took effect in 1967 and provides the public with a path for obtaining information from government agencies. As noted in its text, FOIA “requires the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the United States government upon request.” FOIA intended to make U.S. government agencies function with greater transparency so that the American public can more easily identify problems and put pressure on Congress, agency officials, and the President to address them.

This idea has begun to extend beyond the federal sector, with many states enacting similar laws. There are numerous reasons for individuals or businesses to make FOIA requests — these range from corporations gathering information on competitors to lawyers retrieving valuable law enforcement information for their clients.

However, many public agencies are not equipped to receive and respond to FOIA requests at such a high volume, which can lead to sanctions for agencies. Government agencies, whether at the state or federal level, are under extreme pressure to perform all duties related to processing FOIA requests, which include: 

  • Logging and tracking requests.

  • Searching for responsive records.

  • Analyzing records for disclosure.

  • Applying exemptions to documents.

  • Communicating with requesters. 

These unique requirements are difficult to find in any single solution. However, modern ediscovery platforms may offer the features necessary to make this process more efficient. Since the workflow involved in managing these requests has much in common with a typical ediscovery workflow, public agencies stand to benefit significantly from ediscovery software. Here are three reasons government agencies need to automate now more than ever.

1. Redactions

When responding to FOIA requests, agencies must be very careful to remove any sensitive information that could create a threat to national security or expose personal information that could be used to the detriment of an individual. As a result, redactions take on a larger importance in these situations.

There are several exemptions (known as “B Codes”) that the government can claim as a basis for withholding all or part of a document included in a FOIA request. All records with redactions must have a B Code specifying the exemption reason stamped onto the produced image. All documents withheld must be logged on a record known as a Vaughn Index, which is a privilege log including relevant information about the documents withheld, including the exemption reason.

Without automation, if redactions are required, the documents must first be converted into PDFs and then redacted manually with a program like Microsoft Word or Adobe. However, ediscovery solutions quickly perform redactions with a single tool that has the ability to:

  • Quickly ingest and OCR many different file types.

  • Find relevant documents in a fraction of the time with advanced search tools.

  • Create searchable PDFs and OCR documents without extracted text.

  • Automatically identify personally identifiable information (PII) or other sensitive information.

  • Conduct bulk redactions.

  • Provide templatizable stamping options for exemption codes.

  • Maintain versions for QC and reference.

  • View text and metadata simultaneously without risking spoliation.

  • Automatically detect near-duplicates and email threading.

  • Easily log and track documents.

  • Avoid redaction errors.

  • Create multiple productions if necessary.

  • Automate the privilege log process.

The challenges involved in performing redactions related to a FOIA request can be daunting, but the right ediscovery software can streamline an otherwise labor-intensive and complex process.

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2. Speed

FOIA and related laws entitle individuals to request data from government agencies, and agencies are required to comply with these requests in a set amount of time, sometimes as little as 20 days. According to one Associated Press analysis, those who requested records under FOIA in the past decade received censored files or nothing in 78% of approximately 823,222 requests. Although some believe the government intentionally withheld this information, a more accurate reason for incomplete responses or none at all could be that government agencies struggle to find the proper documents on time.

The ability to quickly create a template, process data, and make it accessible and reviewable is instrumental in complying with the time constraints associated with FOIA requests. Cloud-based ediscovery platforms are attractive solutions for government agencies because they automate responding to FOIA requests. These systems provide the following capabilities:

  • Faster ingestion and processing of documents.

  • Upfront imaging of documents for ease of redaction.

  • Tools for collaboration for rapid decision making.

  • Simplified processes, so agencies don’t have to rely on outside vendors and wait in a queue.

With access to cloud-based ediscovery solutions, government employees can respond to FOIA requests quickly, reducing agency backlogs and risks of penalization. 

3. Security

Access to technology means access to information, and in the case of increased FOIA requests, that means a need to ensure that information is protected. That’s why FedRAMP cloud solutions in AWS GovCloud are critical since they offer security but can still be rapidly deployed without expensive infrastructure costs and system maintenance by an agency. These solutions ultimately help with safeguarding sensitive data, protecting accounts and workloads, and strengthening identity management.

A cloud-based approach to ediscovery is the most reliable option for overall data security, and protections are becoming more and more sophisticated. Advancements in technology show no signs of slowing down in the foreseeable future. The volumes of data that government agencies are charged with managing will only continue to accelerate over time. By streamlining processes around FOIA requests, boosting productivity and efficiency of day-to-day operations, and gaining public trust through increased transparency, ediscovery software can become an invaluable tool for agencies at every level of government. 

To find out more about how the Everlaw platform can help your team successfully manage FOIA requests, request a demo today.