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Buzzfeed Inc. v. DHS, No. 19-03062, 2022 WL 2303985 (D.D.C. June 27, 2022) (Friedrich, J.)


Buzzfeed Inc. v. DHS, No. 19-03062, 2022 WL 2303985 (D.D.C. June 27, 2022) (Friedrich, J.)

Re:  Request for records concerning alert on overcrowding and prolonged detention of adults and children in Rio Grande Valley

Disposition:  Granting in part and denying in part defendant's motion for summary judgment; denying plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment

  • Exemption 6; Exemption 7(C) & Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search:  "[T]he Court will not rule on [plaintiff's] request for individual identifying information now but will instead deny CBP's motion without prejudice and order it to file a supplemental declaration."  The court relates that plaintiff requested, in pertinent part, "alien registration number (A-number) or 'some other "unique identifier" that would permit [p]laintiff to track individuals and aggregate their records across multiple data sets,' justification for missing data."  "CBP withheld A-numbers and any other similar unique database identifiers under both exemptions."  The court holds that "CBP's declaration discusses privacy concerns related to the release of A-numbers, but not to any other unique database identifiers."  "The agency explains that A-numbers, unlike unique database identifiers, are used in contexts other than the [Enforcement Integrated Database ("EID"), a shared DHS database that "'captures and maintains information related to the investigation, arrest, booking, detention, and removal of persons encountered during immigration and criminal law enforcement investigations and operations conducted by DHS components'"], and so their release could reveal immigrants' identities in a way that a database identifier would not."  "But because [plaintiff] is willing to accept unique database identifiers that would enable it to track individuals across multiple datasets and be less personally identifying than A-numbers, . . . the Court declines at this time to decide whether CBP can withhold A-numbers under Exemption 7(C)."  "Instead, the Court will direct CBP to supplement its declaration to address whether there are any alternate unique database identifiers, and if there are, to identify the privacy interests associated with each."  "The Department's briefing states that the existence of any unique database identifiers is 'pure speculation,' . . . but [defendant's] Declaration does not deny their existence . . . ."  "And there is reason to suspect that such identifiers exist."  "Indeed, in a separate case, another agency[, ICE,] acknowledged their existence."
  • Exemption 7(E):  First, the court relates that "CBP withheld under Exemption 7(E) information about specific 'Border Patrol station[s] or operational site[s]' because '[f]urther parsing of the location data, in a data production of this size, would disclose law enforcement sensitive techniques and procedures, and enable circumvention of law enforcement by yielding patterns and inferences about operational capacity, staffing, resource allocation, and transfer routes.'"  "In particular, CBP predicts that '[d]isclosure of the requested information would inform would-be violators which sites are most vulnerable, and the circumstances under which Border Patrol is prompted to redistribute entrants or personnel between stations.'"  "This would allow 'third parties to circumvent the law by altering smuggling routes and patterns of conduct, adopting new methods of criminal operation, and effectuating other countermeasures to law enforcement operations, or planning disruptions of law enforcement operations in violation of criminal and immigration laws.'"  The court finds that "what remains unclear is how the release of detention center information, as opposed to the apprehension location information, would enable traffickers and others to evade law enforcement."  "[Defendant's] Declaration does not provide sufficient information for the Court to draw this conclusion."  "Thus, the Court will direct CBP to explain in its supplemental declaration how disclosure of this information would reveal apprehension location, as well as staffing, resource allocation, and transfer route information . . . and thereby lead to the circumvention of the immigration laws."

    Second, the court relates that "CBP also withheld 'a decade's worth of records documenting the structure and use of EID, including manuals, schemas, layout relationships, and definitions of variables, i.e. the keys and blueprints to the Department's enforcement data infrastructure.'"  "It justified its withholding under Exemption 7(E) on the grounds that the release of '[s]uch technical, law enforcement sensitive material . . . would facilitate breach, sabotage, alteration, or manipulation of the Department's law enforcement database.'"  The court finds that "EID schema would allow hackers to access the database more easily and more effectively, cause more damage to the database, and escape detection more easily."  "Therefore, the Court concludes that CBP properly withheld schemas, manuals, and relationships under Exemption 7(E)."  "It is less clear, however, whether CBP properly withheld other records under Exemption 7(E)."  The court relates that in a previous case, the court "concluded that certain information that appears to have included variable definitions from the EID 'could be released without creating an unacceptable threat to the security of the EID.'"  "Because this Court cannot determine from [defendant's] Declaration and the parties' briefing whether the information that the CBP withheld here is different than the information that ICE produced in [that previous case], the Court will also direct the agency to address in its supplemental declaration the distinctions, if any, between information requested here and that disclosed in [the previous case]."
Court Decision Topic(s)
District Court opinions
Exemption 6
Exemption 7(C)
Exemption 7(E)
Litigation Considerations, Adequacy of Search
Updated August 9, 2022