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FOIA Researchers Are Targeting a Shadowy FBI Program Called 'Gravestone'

FOIA Researchers Are Targeting a Shadowy FBI Program Called 'Gravestone'
From Gizmodo - December 22, 2017

If youre the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), tasked with rapidly uncovering plots involving terrorism and cybercrime, you want access to as much intelligence as you can get your hands on. After all, your successes are rarely rewarded with a ticker-tape parade, but when you fail, well, theres lots of career-ending blame and congressional testimony to go around.

The problem, of course, is that the FBIs mission and the tools it uses to accomplish it often collide with the privacy protections guaranteed to Americans by the Fourth Amendment. We know, for instance, that the FBI has engaged in questionable, if not downright illegal, practices in furtherance of its broadly defined mission statement to uphold the Constitution of the United States. And as most woke Americans know, the Bureaus past is littered with crimes and misdeeds, the most egregious of which arguably occurred in the Civil Rights era.

But new technologies, including the internet itself, have given the FBI plenty of new opportunities to skirt the law (which it does with a license through the use of confidential informants several thousand times a year anyway). And while there are FBI agents out there doing a lot of goodcatching child predators, methamphetamine dealers, and even more child predatorstheres ample reason to be suspicious of the ways in which it surveils suspects today, particularly since innocent American citizens are routinely caught up in the mix.

One of the chief ways of holding the Bureau accountable has long been the use of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, a decades-old federal law that journalists and researchers increasingly rely on by to pry loose government secrets. It allows any Americanand even non-citizensto request access to US government records that may not be automatically available to the public. In a 1978 case, the Supreme Court explained: The basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.

That sounds pretty good, huh?

Through a lawsuit filed this week, researchers are hoping to use FOIA to uncover information about a shadowy FBI program known only as Gravestone. Not much is known about the initiative, except that it may have been unintentionally disclosed. It would at least be nice to know who thought Gravestone was a good name for agovernment program.

In an exclusive published on Thursday, Slate reporter April Glaser wrote that information about Gravestone was uncovered by FOIA researcher Ryan Shapiro on the governments data.gov web portal. But only the programs name and a brief description were available.

As Glaser wrote:

Gravestone is a system consisting of an IP based camera, routers, firewalls, and a workstation to review surveillance video, the Department of Justice website read. The system provides Video Surveillance data to FBI Field Offices and is used by case agents. An IP-based camera is the technical term for a surveillance camera thats connected to a network. The routers and firewalls may help provide a secure way to deliver information from the cameras to whatever workstation the FBI has set up to review the footage.

Its intriguing, and, given the FBIs history, the researchers who uncovered the program and captured some screenshots before it was removed from the DOJs website are naturally curious about exactly what kind of video surveillance data is being conducted using Gravestone. In March, Shapiro filed a FOIA letter requesting information about the programincluding a privacy-impact study, which, as Glaser notes, is a DOJ requirement for programs involving new technologiesbut the agency failed to respond within 20 business days, the deadline mandated by federal law. As of this writing, around eight months have gone by, and the Bureau has yet to provide an answer.

The democratic process cannot meaningfully function without an informed citizenry, and such a citizenry is impossible without broad public access to information about the operations of government, Shapiro tells Gizmodo.

A PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Shapiro is a renowned expert in using FOIA to pry loose once-secret government documents. Within the ranks of the Justice Department, hes known as a prolific requester of government records, though the FBI just calls him vexsome.

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