Privacy group sues DHS, NSA over FOIA requests

Wednesday - 1/11/2012, 1:49pm EST

Amie Stepanovich, National Security Counsel, EPIC

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The Electronic Privacy Information Center is suing the Homeland Security Department and the National Security Agency. In both cases, EPIC is unhappy with how the government responded to its Freedom of Information Act requests.

In the complaint filed Dec. 20, EPIC claimed DHS "failed to make a determination regarding EPIC's FOIA request and failed to produce any documents."

Amie Stepanovich, EPIC's National Security Counsel, in the Federal News Radio studio on Jan. 11. (Photo by Jolie Lee/Federal News Radio)

Amie Stepanovich, EPIC's National Security Counsel, said DHS acknowledged the request but "basically they never substantively responded to the request."

The FOIA request asked for documents related to DHS' social media monitoring programs, including its creation of fake Facebook and Twitter identities, Stepanovich said.

In a February 2011 a Federal Register notice, DHS said it would not "actively collect" personally identifiable information, but may do so for "certain narrowly tailored categories." DHS would also retain information for up to five years and make it available to government agencies, according to the EPIC lawsuit.

Stepanovich said DHS' activities could have a chilling effect on free speech. "You have to wonder when your speech isn't free anywhere when the government is watching everything you say and retaining it and sharing it ... at what point people are going to stop talking," she said.

The EPIC lawsuit against NSA also deals with privacy. In 2010, Google suffered a cyber attack, allegedly from China. Google sought an alliance with NSA for cyber collaboration, the lawsuit said.

"Google has a massive amount of information on us," Stepanovich said. "And regardless of people's feelings on what Google has on us, you're getting a strong sense that people don't want that information shared with the government."

EPIC filed a FOIA request for communications between Google and NSA. NSA responded that it could not confirm nor deny such documents existed.

NSA "can't logically overcome FOIA and turn down everybody," Stepanovich said.

But the U.S. District Court for D.C. denied EPIC's motion, saying NSA did not have to disclose its "organization or any function," according to the summary judgment. Stepanovich said EPIC is appealing that decision.

DHS and NSA did not immediately respond to Federal News Radio's requests for comment.