TL;DR: FOIA requests for emails are among the most common, but can be a shot in the dark. Instead, requesting email metadata can ensure you find what you’re looking for.
In FOIA Lesson #4, we learned about the importance of flexing your rights by appealing unfavorable determinations. I shared an anecdote about one time that I appealed, endured a mediation process, and obtained far more than I expected as a result.
One of the most common — and fruitful — public records requests are for emails. What could be more interesting than the words straight from the horse’s mouth, to other horses, when they might have a lapse in judgement and forget that their emails are (usually) a matter of public record?
Just this past week, the story about the Department of Housing and Urban Development — led by former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson — spending thousands of dollars on a dining set, reached a fascinating climax made possible only through FOIA. Carson denied knowledge of the order. However, emails obtained through FOIA revealed that Carson and his wife personally “picked out” the dining set in question, effectively reigniting the scandal.
There are many examples such as this. Heck, even the never-ending scandal over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server, and subsequent investigation, started with a FOIA request for her emails.
However, it can be quite difficult to obtain the emails you’re looking for. You may send a request to, say, a police department asking for all emails mentioning particular words or phrases, but that can get costly, especially if you want them to search all employees’ emails. You’ll also need to provide a time frame, which can be tough to decide on.
It’s better if you know the individual or individuals who are most likely to have sent or received the email(s) you’re interested in, and specifically request emails sent to or received from them containing certain words or phrases.
But you might only know the government employee who sent or received the emails you’re looking for. Let’s take an example. Ajit Pai, the Chairman of the FCC, recently became infamous over his successful campaign to repeal net neutrality. It’s somewhat of an open secret that lobbying of some sort or another by telecommunications companies made this happen. Let’s say you want to get your hands on some proof.
You could file a request for emails sent to or from Pai mentioning “net neutrality.” But you might not know the time frame; lobbying by telecommunications companies could have occurred months or years before the public was aware of the move to repeal net neutrality, and if your time frame includes the period in which there was widespread public outrage, the emails you get will mostly be complaints from the public, and will cost a lot of money.
You could also request any emails between companies such as Verizon and Comcast and Pai, which may get you closer to your target. But what if there are tons of emails there about other topics? You could specify the phrase “net neutrality,” but what if they call it something else? And what if the lobbying was done by people hired by telecommunications companies, meaning that a search for emails to or from addresses ending in “@verizon.net,” for example, will leave out exactly the sorts of messages you want to find?
You’d be forgiven for giving up here. But wait, there’s another tactic.
Every email contains metadata, or information about an email. That includes who sent the email, who it was sent to, the date and time it was sent, the subject, and more. Filing a request for email metadata can be extremely fruitful. Another benefit is that you can greatly expand the time frame, since it adds little to no extra work to fulfill your request. Not only can you exploit this to find what you’re looking for, you can also probably find out all sorts of interesting things if you use this tactic in a good ol’ fishing expedition.
And it may not cost you any money at all. Emails in outlook, for example, can be exported to an Excel spreadsheet with the click of a button, metadata and all. The agency will then just have to delete or redact any fields (such as the body of the email) that you’re not requesting. What you will have left is a few columns and many rows. You are now effectively searching an individual’s email account. If, based on who sent or received the email, and when the email was sent, you think it may be of interest, you can then file a separate request for that particular email, as well as any others you identify.
Let’s apply this method to the request for Pai’s emails. You could request his email metadata, particularly the “to,” “from,” and “date” fields. (The subject field would be useful too, but that would also require someone to go through and redact as needed, which could take time and cost money.) Agencies don’t typically get requests like this, so be prepared for some questions and potential push back. If you follow through, you’ll get a spreadsheet with the address the email was sent to, who sent it, and the date/time it was sent, in separate columns.
Now you could start by searching for email addresses ending in “@verizon.net,” “@comcast.net,” or similar. But those could mostly be from everyday citizens outraged by the repeal of net neutrality and letting Pai know their feelings. What may be more useful, at least in this example, would be looking through the email addresses and doing some research to find out if they were lobbyists.
The beauty of this technique is that, in your subsequent request for actual emails, you’ll be able to specify the date it was sent, who it was sent to, and who sent it, making the amount of work necessary to fulfill your request trivially easy.
Now that’s what I call a metaFOIA.