Government agencies sure love their black markers.
For transparency activists, receiving overly redacted documents is a guilty pleasure. Sure, we'd all prefer to have the records unmarred by secrecy (except for narrow occasions, such as when the black-outs legitimately protect people's privacy), but sometimes those redactions are the first indication that we've hit pay dirt. Other times, these redactions provide comic relief.
In anticipation of Sunshine Week, EFF called for the public to submit the most absurd redactions they've seen for for The Foilies, our new “awards” for shenanigans in the Freedom of Information process. The big takeaway from the nominations we received: redactions can be unintentional conceptual art.
Most Surreal Retirement Party
Federal Bureau of Intelligence
USA Today reporter Brad Heath submitted a FOIA request to the FBI for documents related to a retirement party, to which he believed a certain controversial figure had been invited. Rather than just rejecting the record request altogether, to the agency's credit, the FBI's FOIA team went through the photos one by one, adding white squares to mask the faces of all the attendees in an admirable attempt to balance transparency and confidentiality.
The result: a surreal photo album from the Blockhead family reunion.
Worth noting for future redactors: faces are censored with boxes, but hugs and kisses on the cheek are censored with irregular hexagons.
U.S. State Department
We'll let ProPublica journalist T. Christian Miller explain the back story of this gem:
This was a State Department cable returned as part of a request of all cables from the U.S. Embassy in Liberia to the State Department between 2005 and present. The cables were an important source of information in ProPublica and Frontline’s project called Firestone and the Warlord about how the iconic American tire company helped finance warlord Charles Taylor’s rise to power. In fairness, the State Dept. delivered only one cable in this format, with type so tiny I called it Lilliputian Font, maybe 4 pt in actual size. So it was probably an accident. But it was about the “worst forms of child labor in Liberia.” So who knows?
Tie: Ibrahim v. DHS opinion and Seattle Public Schools
Ask us to choose between Kafka and Orwell and you'll get a hung jury. But instead of throwing the case out, we're just going to split the foil down the middle.
The first is from an infamous "No Fly" case, in which a Malaysian professor, Rahinah Ibrahim, sued to get her name taken off the Department of Homeland Security's No Fly list, since it had wound up there by accident. After an eight-year battle, Ibrahim received a favorable decision from the judge last year. The version of the opinion made public was chockful of redactions, including this deliciously ironic one:
(h/t Ars Technica)
Technically the second request was just a few days outside our cut off point, but we're making an exception because it's just too perfect to hold for another year. This one was nominated by Isaiah Earhart, a parent of a child in the Seattle Public Schools system, who was seeking information about administration of the school's robotics club in 2014. The text of the email was redacted under an attorney-client privilege exemption, but note the ironic signature quote:
Chicago Public Schools
Monica Eng of WBEZ filed a records to learn what kind of ingredients make up school lunches fed to students. Chicago Public Schools came back with this frustratingly vague response:
Burlington County Times staff writer Sharon Lurye, who sent in this nomination, commented, "No need to worry about what's in the mystery meat in the cafeteria. These chicken nuggets are guaranteed to be made only from 100% chicken nuggets." According to Eng, the school district released the actual list of ingredients a few days later after the Illinois Attorney General got involved.
For other posts from The Foilies: