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November 14, 2013

This academic is so good at FOIA requests the FBI wants him banned from using them

He's an ex-punk-turned-academic who is researching portrayals of animal rights activists in the 20th century. And he's found a way around the FBI's constant stonewalling: the privacy waiver. Here's how it works. Usually when one submits an FOIA you'll either get the documents you asked for, get a heavily-redacted version, or be told that the FBI has no idea what you're talking about. A privacy waiver--from the subject of the FBI investigation--allows an information seeker to get vast wheelbarrows of data without any redactions. Ryan Shapiro is so good at follow breadcrumb trails and getting privacy waivers from the subjects of FBI surveillance that he's been able to piece together a lot. Too much, according to the FBI, who are asking a judge to let them ignore his requests. Meet the Punk Rocker Who Can Liberate Your FBI File | Mother Jones
Shapiro takes pride in his "most prolific" status, but it's not an honorific he had in mind when he set out to learn how the FBI came to view animal rights activists as the nation's "number one domestic terrorism threat." He ran into a wall when he first began requesting significant numbers of documents from the bureau in 2010. He needed case numbers, file names, and names of field offices where investigations originated, and even when he had them, the FBI often claimed it didn't have any relevant documents. So he began reading everything he could find on FOIA law, including the FBI's internal regulations and court filings describing how it conducts its searches. When he started using privacy waivers, Shapiro realized he was on to something. Suppose you and I volunteered for the animal rights group PETA. If Shapiro requested all PETA-related FBI documents, he might get something back, but any references to us would be blacked out. If he requested documents related to us, he'd probably get nothing at all. But if he filed his PETA request along with privacy waivers signed by us, the FBI would be compelled to return all PETA documents that mention us—with the relevant details uncensored. Shapiro began calling up old friends and asking for waivers. Coming of age amid the 1990s punk scene, he'd been drawn to animal rights causes and took part in their actions. He walked into foie gras facilities to film sick and injured ducks, several of which he rescued, and locked himself to the doors of fur salons. And while he no longer does such things, he has kept in touch with people who do. Armed with signed privacy waivers, he sent out a few experimental requests—he calls them "submarine pings"—and when the FBI returned more than 100 pages on a close friend, he knew he'd struck gold. The response included pages of information that Shapiro had requested previously, but that the FBI had claimed didn't exist. Using case details from those documents and a handful of additional waivers, he filed a new set of requests. Bit by bit, the black boxes began to go away. "Each response is a teeny little window opened into the backrooms of these deliberately byzantine FBI filing systems," Shapiro told me. "You get enough windows, and then you have the light you need to see what's back there." Soon Shapiro was submitting hundreds of requests, yielding tens of thousands of pages. One of his privacy waivers had my name on it. As an independent journalist whose website and recent book focus on agribusiness, animal rights, and ecoterrorism, I've known Shapiro for years. I've quoted him in stories and written about documents he's procured showing that the FBI considered terrorism charges against activists who engaged in undercover investigations of factory farm conditions. I knew from filing my own FOIA requests that the FBI's Counter Terrorism Unit has monitored my website and speaking events, and so I agreed to sign a waiver. I wanted to see whether Shapiro's technique would reveal anything new. I never found out, though, since the FBI has stopped complying with his requests.