FOIA The Dead, the transparency site public figures are dying to get into

Parker Higgins

Director of Special Projects

Newspapers, classified
Photo by G. Crescoli on Unsplash

FOIA The Dead, a transparency project that automates public records requests of notable deceased individuals and publishes the results, is relaunching today as a special project of Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Here's how it works: Public records laws like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) typically allow agencies like the FBI to limit the information that's available to the public, ostensibly to protect the privacy of individuals. In the United States, the rules that enable these restrictions no longer apply after a person passes away.

For FOIA The Dead, that means major paper obituaries serve a special purpose—they flag a prominent figure for whom government information might be newly available to the public. Thus, every day an automated program pages through the obituary section of the New York Times and bundles up FOIA requests to send to the FBI, seeking files.

Often, the FBI responds that they have no documents responsive to the request, meaning (usually) that the agency simply has no records related to the person in its files. But frequently we do receive documents, and we publish them online for the world to see.

The resulting project shows a thin slice of the sorts of surveillance that the U.S. government engages in, but even that limited view can be revelatory. In particular, it reflects a pattern of surveillance of activists, journalists, and even academics. For example, FOIA The Dead has surfaced the FBI file for the CBS correspondent Morley Safer, which documents a bureau report prepared after a tip that his coverage could be "destructive to morale" in the Vietnam War. We've also published the file of Washington Post writer Ben Bagdikian—a file he requested himself, in 1975—which shows intense scrutiny of his articles about the FBI and official secrecy.

Since the inception of the project, we’ve sent over 1,500 public records requests, and have published over 3,500 pages of files. A large portion of those requests are still active—meaning we haven’t heard one way or another from the FBI about whether a file exists—but we’ve already received and published files on 50 individuals, and that number is now increasing regularly.

Currently, FOIA The Dead checks the obituary section using a New York Times API, and files requests through Muckrock, a news organization that offers tools for sending public records requests. And just as much as we hope to unearth interesting information about government surveillance of public figures, we also aim to inspire newsrooms and journalists to pursue other automated records requesting efforts. To that end, all of the source code behind FOIA The Dead is free software and available on Github.

For more background, we recommend this episode of Note To Self, a technology podcast that reported on the project when it initially launched earlier this year. That page also includes instructions for requesting your own file, or the file of a friend or relative, if that’s something you’re interested in.

For FOIA The Dead's relaunch, we have published a slew of new files and improved the way the site works, including the addition of RSS feeds for new entries. You can follow the project's dedicated Twitter feed at @foiathedead, which we will update any time there is a new file posted.

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