News in Brief

FOIA redux, population data and encryption middle ground

Shutterstock image: digital record infrastructure.

Issa, Cummings renew FOIA reform bid

The clock ran out on a bipartisan effort to strengthen Freedom of Information Act authorities in the last Congress. Now the bill's main sponsors, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) are reviving the effort.

The bill would require the government to establish a single, consolidated online portal for making FOIA requests, put the onus on agencies to justify decisions to withhold information, and raise the bar for refusals. Agencies also would be on the hook for posting frequently requested information online, and releasing annual reports on FOIA requests that includes documentation of proactive document release.

"Requests through the Freedom of Information Act remain the best tool for the American people to hold their government accountable," Issa said in a statement. "In this information technology driven era, it should be easier, not harder for citizens to have simpler and broader access to government information."

Big data used to predict population growth

A team of researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory is leveraging geospatial data to produce a new model that can more precisely predict where people will live in the coming decades.

The new model was first developed to predict where to site new energy infrastructure, but has wider implications for urban planning and disaster preparedness. The research was conducted by ORNL's Urban Dynamics Institute and funded by DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy.

The model builds on years of research in the development of other ORNL technologies that supply geographical distribution of population with 90-meter resolution for the U.S. Those technologies incorporate regional variables such as land cover, slope, distances to larger cities, roads and population movement, allowing researchers to refine future population distributions by county.

In the study's projections for 2030 and 2050, the researchers set constraints for each contiguous U.S. county under a business-as-usual scenario based on historical conditions. The team's analysis of this scenario found that sprawl growth was projected to be most prevalent in El Dorado and Riverside counties in California, as well as Maricopa County, Ariz.

The researchers said they anticipate making the datasets accessible for broad use later this year.

FBI seeks 'middle ground' on encryption

Kevin Perkins, associate deputy director at the FBI, says law enforcement and privacy advocates need to reach a "middle ground" on the amount of encryption allowed on mobile devices and laptops.

Speaking at the Adobe Digital Government Assembly in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 3, Perkins said the increasing use of encryption has made it increasingly difficult for law enforcement to do its job.

"We understand the need for this encryption, but there has to be some kind of middle ground," Perkins said. "Things on these devices can provide valuable information for cases."

Perkins said the FBI is trying to get the conversation started and clear up any misconceptions the public might have about what is being done to their data.

"We're trying to get people to understand that law enforcement must be able to access communication. … It helps law enforcement protect you," Perkins said.

Back in October, the FBI Director James Comey said he is concerned law enforcement agencies efforts to conduct court-ordered surveillance will be impeded by the amount of encryption users are putting on their devices.

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