The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) has denied a Freedom of Information Act request for information on the 25-year contract it has signed with AT&T, Inc., to deploy and maintain a nationwide public safety broadband network, as well as requests for other records, including opt-in notifications from states.
A letter yesterday from FirstNet Senior Counsel Natasha Robinson Coates noted that under section 6206(d)(2) of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which established FirstNet, FirstNet is exempt from FoIA requirements. “Accordingly, we do not undertake a search of our files for requested records or furnish such records to requestors,” she said. “Further, the requested information constitutes internal (non-public) agency records that FirstNet has determined not to make publicly available at this time,” she added. “Therefore, this letter closes your pending request before FirstNet.”
The letter rejected four separate FoIA requests submitted to FirstNet, the Commerce Department, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
The requests had sought (1) “all user comments submitted to [FirstNet’s state plans]portal”; (2) “all communications from any state government officials to the First Responder Network Authority (‘FirstNet’) which the agency considers to be agreements (or proposed agreements) to ‘opt-in’ to the FirstNet system”; (3) “all Privacy Impact Assessments (‘PLAs’) created for systems affiliated with the First Responder Network Authority (‘FirstNet’)”; and (4) “all contracts, agreements, memoranda of understanding, etc. with AT&T pertaining to the First Responder Network Authority (‘FirstNet’).”
The FoIA requests were submitted on Sept. 1 on behalf of Stephen Whitaker and David Gram, whom the requests said “have no commercial interest in this information.”
Mr. Whitaker is a Vermont resident and government accountability advocate and Mr. Gram is a former Associated Press reporter who now works for “VTDigger,” a non-profit web-based publication that is a project of the Vermont Journalism Trust.
“Messrs. Whitaker and Gram intend to use this information to inform the public about a topic of significant public interest and to participate in the political process of working with the Vermont state government (and other state governments) to make informed choices about the FirstNet system,” according to the FoIA requests, which were filed by Kel McClanahan, an attorney and executive director of National Security Counselors.
Mr. Whitaker criticized the denial of the FoIA requests. “If FirstNet claims … that the entire FirstNet project is exempt from FOIA, as has been insinuated (without precedent) by a federal judge in Iowa, then Congress will have to address that oversight forthwith. The Department of Commerce however cannot make any such claim of exemption and is similarly bound by the FOIA obligations and Privacy Impact Assessments as evidenced by the attached brochure downloaded from the Department of Commerce website,” he said in an e-mail.
He said there is a need for more transparency on FirstNet “and precisely what privacy, reliability and accountability compromises we are being asked to make through this highly unusual, cleverly lobbied and marketed yet opaque multi-billion dollar, 25 year procurement process.”
Mr. Whitaker was also more generally critical of AT&T, FirstNet’s network partner, saying that “AT&T’s miserable track record of failing to respect or protect the privacy of its customers and all Americans, as well as the collusion with the spy agencies to collect massive amounts of privacy sensitive data, aggregating this information into useful yet dangerous systems such as HEMISPHERE, PRISM and possibly PALANTIR METROPOLIS should have all involved of us on high alert and scrutinizing FirstNet for the vast range of possible unintended consequences.”
AT&T had no immediate comment today on the criticism. FirstNet declined further comment.
The open government advocates pursued a copy of the original state plan that FirstNet delivered to Vermont in June (TR Daily, June 19) and have received a redacted version from the Vermont Department of Public Safety. Among the portions redacted are coverage details because the information is considered a trade secret and other sections because they would reveal security information.
In an e-mail to Vermont state senators this week, Mr. Whitaker called it “fascinating that most of the most important details which would be necessary for comparing the reliability, geographic coverage, security, privacy protections, etc. are what they now are redacting. This is not at all reassuring. One would presume that these essential factors of a good plan would be a motivation for transparency and even bragging rights. That is if AT&T were offering something worth buying. Why we had to wait nearly two months for such an incomplete subset of the required information to make an informed judgment as to the value and credibility of AT&Ts proposal is still a mystery to me.”
“This complex project requires a higher level of government and Legislative oversight integrating the needs of public safety FirstNet, telecommunications planning, economic development, broadband, e911, consolidated dispatch, LMR radio management, health care and education. In short, a new governance model for telecommunications in Vermont,” Mr. Whitaker argued.
“At this juncture, the Governor, in order to adequately protect Vermont’s citizens, must be rational and simply opt-out in late December, thereby enabling the Legislature to reconvene, define and oversee a full eight month planning process with a public/private partnership between the State of Vermont and a qualified vendor managing an LTE network in Vermont with resulting plans submitted to the FCC and NTIA for approval, grant funding and Band 14 spectrum lease, while also establishing Vermont as a leading edge test-bed and proving ground for integrated economic development network planning, systems hardening, integrating NG911 & VoLTE, oversight/governance and frequent auditing of network resiliency and information security,” he added.- Paul Kirby, email@example.com