Court to FBI: Why not Google?

Court of Appeals finds FOIA denial inappropriate if FBI agents don't make the most basic attempts at tracking down those affected. But do agents even have the ability to "google"?
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

The law school brief on this case might go something like this:

Issue: Must the FBI "google" an individual before it denies at FOIA request based on failure to determine whether persons affected by information release are still alive?

Held: Yes

Jonathan Adler, blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy, describes the decision in Davis v Dept. of Justice (PDF). [A]n author sought the release of audiotapes between a specific individual and an FBI informant from a Louisiana corruption investigation over 25 years ago. The FBI denied the request, citing the privacy interests of the taped individuals, but was unable to determine whether the taped individuals were still alive (or over 100, in which case they would be presumed dead under FBI practice)

The court found the FBI's due diligence here lacking:

[O]ne has to ask why -- in the age of the Internet -- the FBI restricts itself to a dead-tree source with a considerable time lag between death and publication, with limited utility for the FBI’s purpose, and with entries restricted to a small fraction of even the “prominent and noteworthy”? Why, in short, doesn’t the FBI just Google the two names? Surely, in the Internet age, a “reasonable alternative” for finding out whether a prominent person is dead is to use Google (or any other search engine) to find a report of that person’s death.

Yet, googling(TM) may not be a realistic option for the FBI. A Washington Post article detailed just how bad the agency's legacy system was - and apparently the agency is still using it until Sentinel is ready.

Most employees had no PCs. They relied instead on shared computers for access to the Internet and e-mail. A type of memo called an electronic communication had to be printed out on paper and signed by a supervisor before it was sent. Uploading a single document took 12 steps. The setup was so cumbersome that many agents stopped using it, preferring to rely on paper and secretaries. Technologically, the FBI was trapped in the 1980s, if not earlier. "Getting information into or out of the system is a challenge," said Greg Gandolfo, who spent most of his 18-year FBI career investigating financial crimes and public corruption cases in Chicago, Little Rock and Los Angeles. "It's not like 'Here it is, click' and it's in there. It takes a whole series of steps and screens to go through."
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