Sunday, February 6, 2011

Confinement of Information

Have you ever been curious as to whether there were any government files kept on your suspicious behavior?

Have you ever considered filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get access to said hypothetical records?

Erich Vieth of Dangerous Intersection tried it with the Department of Homeland Security, and offers some illuminating commentary on the unhelpful response he received.

As a librarian, I was particularly struck by the fact that DHS states it "does not maintain a central index of records about individuals."

This means that in order to access records, you must "describe the records you are seeking with as much information as possible," including "the type of record you are seeking, the DHS component you believe created and/or controls the records, the precipitating event that you believe warranted the creation of records and the time period that you believe the records or files were created and compiled."

So you have to know what happened, before you can get information about what happened.

And if you don't know of a specific precipitating event that might have resulted in records-creation, and you just wonder if your name shows up anywhere in their files, too bad, they have no way to find it.

Is apparently what they're saying, although that seems ridiculous.

Because seriously, no central index? You can't just look up a person's name?

That's grand for privacy purposes, perhaps, since it means it must be very difficult to find out what you know about anyone unless you know exactly what they've done and when, but it's kind of incredible to me from an information organization standpoint.

How do you ever look anything up? I suspect there's some twisty language trick going on, like maybe they have several non-central indexes that they consult one by one, or they officially call it 'main index' instead of 'central index,' or something.

If not, they really ought to look into that, because if you're trying to keep track of people who've done or who might do things, being able to look them up by name and find all the references associated with that name (maybe even cross references to alternative forms of the name, if you want to get fancy!) can really help.

I know, because I use this trick with authors of books all the time.

It's super-handy, DHS folks! Talk to your local librarian for more information about how you can use indexing to make your job easier!


1 comment:

erinserb said...

It does seem curious - when they (government) need to get information, it is no problem for them - think no-fly lists, Patriot Act offenders and such.

Indexing - Amen!