March 18, 2009, 9:45 AM — Want to know what the feds have been up to? Anyone with Internet access can now search through thousands of once-classified documents that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) "has pried loose from secretive government agencies" through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). On Monday, the EFF announced a new search engine specifically designed for these documents.
The EFF FOIA Search Engine allows browsers to search for keywords, and narrow the search by topic and the government department that issued the paper. There are sorting options and a checkbox to search only "significant" documents.
But the search engine, at least in its current beta form, doesn't handle phrases particularly well. I searched for "Automated Targeting System" (an example used in the announcement, but I added the quotes) and got no results. But when I searched for Automated Targeting System (no quotes), I got 18 hits. Some of them had the phrase, but others just had the separate words.
The documents themselves are scanned hard copies, which isn't the most readable format. However, the text can be searched and somewhat clumsily copied. This is true even when a page didn't go through the scanner properly, resulting in a slanted image.
The announcement was timed for the start of Sunshine Week, a "national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information."