Skip to main content
Blog Post

FOIA Update: Automated FOIA Processing

FOIA Update
Vol. XVII, No. 1

Agencies Explore the Use of Document
Imaging in Automated FOIA Processing

In their administration of the Freedom of Information Act, federal agencies are increasingly looking to the use of document imaging and the potential of automated FOIA processing as a means of enhancing the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of their operations. Rapid advances in document-imaging technology in recent years have provided strong impetus to such efforts at several agencies.

Document Imaging

Document-imaging technology converts the information contained in paper records into an electronic form. Once in that form, the information can either be stored as images or converted into text that can be searched and modified electronically at a computer terminal.

The first step in the imaging process is to convert printed material into digital form by using a document scanner. This document "capture" is generally the most expensive part of the process, but the costs have decreased with advances in imaging technology. The scanned images are then stored on magnetic media or optical disks as part of an imaging system. For imaging systems that require more capacity than a single optical disk or magnetic tape can accommodate, the system can be configured to use robotic arms that retrieve and activate the particular disk selected. Images can be viewed on standard computer monitors, although high-resolution monitors are available.

The stored documents must be indexed for purposes of retrieval. Users of the system can search the documents' indexed elements or fields by entering key words or phrases and then the system's search-and-retrieval software responds with a list of documents that contain the element sought. Portions of documents can be focused on individually in this way.

As a general rule, electronic documents take much less time to find, handle, refile, and route. They also can potentially be "processed" for FOIA disclosure in an automated fashion, rather than by hand. This led federal agencies--especially those with large-volume FOIA operations, such as the Department of State and the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the Department of Justice -- to begin exploring the use of this technology for FOIA purposes.

Automated Processing at the FBI

The FBI's program for automated FOIA processing is being developed to include electronic tracking of requests and records as well. "By 1999, we will have an electronic imaging system installed at FBI Headquarters and at all field offices for the tracking and processing of information requested under the FOIA and Privacy Act," predicts Kimberli Jones-Holt, Project Manager for the FBI's FOIA/PA Document Processing System. "Using electronic imaging management, we can develop a methodology for tracking and processing paper documents in an automated way from the time a document is received by the FBI to its final disposition," she says.

Automated FOIA processing is a vital part of the FBI's plans for the development of its electronic information management systems. Several years ago, a preliminary "proof-of-concept" system for automated processing was installed in the FOIA/PA Section at FBI Headquarters. That application was designed to demonstrate that document processors could redact documents electronically, both quickly and cleanly, if the right supporting system could be developed.

That proved to be a groundbreaking FOIA application for imaging technology. In 1993, when Justice Department representatives of Vice President Gore's National Performance Review team were looking for possible projects to sponsor that would use technology to make the federal government more efficient and customer friendly, this FBI automation project was identified as an excellent one for increased funding and development.

This led to the creation in 1994 of a National Performance Review "FOIA Lab," a prototype electronic document imaging system within the FBI's Information Resources Division. See FOIA Update, Summer 1994, at 6. This prototype system operates as a "client-server environment," with one server containing the imaging software and four connected workstations at which document processors can access or download electronic documents for processing. Instead of "browning out" information with a marking pen or using some other manual redaction tool, they can delete words electronically--but in a way in which FOIA requesters can still see where redactions are made.

This prototype system is being developed further for FBI use through this NPR Lab and, with NPR funding, other components of the Justice Department can build on it for application to their FOIA processing.

Automation at the CIA

The Central Intelligence Agency has developed an electronic imaging system known as MORI, an acronym for "Management of Officially Released Information." At the present time, 25 FOIA analysts at CIA Headquarters are making use of the system on a regular basis.

"Our system is in extended customer testing at the present time," says Lee S. Strickland, the CIA's Information and Privacy Coordinator. "By late 1996, 50 analysts and supervisors at Headquarters and 50 analysts in the four CIA directorates will have access to the system."

At the CIA, the hardware and software for this electronic system are provided by three separate commercial companies. One company provides the equipment that is used for image capture, management, and redaction. The document images are stored on, and can be retrieved from, a combination of magnetic media and optical disks. Fortunately, over the years, all information released to the public by the CIA under the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act was placed on microfiche. These images have now been simply converted to optical disks.

A separate database of ASCII-formatted records is managed by a second commercial product, using "OCR" -- optical character recognition -- the technique by which characters are identified and then converted into computer-processable codes. A third commercial product provides the software that stores the indexing and tracking data for the CIA's documents and requests. Its system is a structured database, which means that it has defined fields and allows users to search by several different FOIA request characteristics.

The CIA intends to use this new imaging system as much as possible for automated FOIA processing. One of the most significant early tests of its performance will be in its processing of the FOIA request of Jennifer Harbury, an American attorney who married a Guatemalan guerrilla leader now missing and possibly deceased in Guatemala. Her FOIA/Privacy Act request to the CIA for all records pertaining to her or her husband involves thousands of pages of documents and the CIA's new processing system is now being used for this high-profile request.

"I think the document imaging technology will perform to everyone's satisfaction," predicts Strickland. "Imaging technology will greatly facilitate the redaction of documents. We can print out a black-out copy of a document for the requester, a gray-out copy for the court, or even a full-text version. And I think the requester is going to be satisfied with the legibility of the final product."

At the Department of Energy

"We have had an optical imaging system installed and operating satisfactorily for about five months," says GayLa D. Sessoms, Director of the FOIA/PA Division at the Department of Energy. "All of our FOIA requests for 1996 are being electronically filed. This means that for all 1996 requests, we can go into the system, pull up the request, and have access to all the documents relevant to that request -- including the documents released, worksheets, correspondence, and tracking information. However, because the system is still new, we are holding onto our paper copies."

Additionally, all records in Energy's public reading room are being electronically scanned into its system. In this case, though, the paper copies have not been kept, because the various offices and divisions are the actual repositories of original records and the reading room maintains only copies of records. Users can now access the records electronically by using keyword searches. As Sessoms describes it: "A requester can just walk into the reading room, ask for a document, and we can pull it off the screen. I believe that with this kind of action, the requester is going to be very satisfied."

At the present time, seven analysts at Energy's Headquarters are processing records using imaging technology. When they search for records, however, they rely on the traditional methods of manual searches and telephone inquiries. Eventually, Sessoms hopes to have all of Energy's program offices and divisions interconnected by this information system. When they reach that point, an analyst could scan a FOIA request into the system and then electronically send the request to a program office, where a program assistant would conduct an electronic search for records and electronically send them to the analyst for automated processing.

So far, this technology has been used for one major project at Energy: More than 20,000 pages of records on the subject of human radiation experimentation have been scanned into the system. "These records are frequently requested," Sessoms explains. "Now, if anyone wants access to them, they are already processed and ready to go." This example holds strong potential for more efficient FOIA processing, particularly for such large project cases.

"Our system is still in a pilot stage, but I think it is working well," says Sessoms. "More than anything, I see a lot of potential. There are major time-saving advantages in being able to interact electronically with the other offices and in decreasing the amount of paper associated with FOIA processing. The system has the potential to enable us to work faster and more efficiently."

This potential is one that should be developed further by these and other federal agencies as the technologies for document imaging, automated FOIA processing, and related electronic information management continue to advance.


The center four pages of this issue of FOIA Update contain an updated list of the principal FOIA administrative and legal contacts at federal agencies.

Go to: FOIA Update Home Page

Updated August 13, 2014