Civic Hax

A blog probably about FOIA and civic hacking.

A tale about requesting Chicago’s Mayor’s Office’s phone records.

August 28, 2018 — Matt Chapman


Back in 2014, I had the naive goal of finding evidence of collusion between mayoral candidates. The reasoning is longwinded and boring, so I won't go into it. My plan was to find some sort of evidence through a FOIA request or two for the mayor's phone records, find zero evidence of collusion, then move onto a different project like I normally do. What came instead was a painful year and a half struggle to get a single week's worth of phone records from Chicago's Office of the Mayor.

Hope you enjoy and learn something along the way!

Requests to Mayor's Office

My first request was simple and assumed that the mayor's office had a modern phone. On Dec 8, 2014, I sent this anonymous FOIA request to Chicago's Office of the Mayor:

Please attach all of the mayor's phone records from any city-owned phones (including cellular phones) over the past 4 years.

Ten days later, I received a rejection back stating they didn't have any of the mayor's phone records:

A FOIA request must be directed to the department that maintains the records you are seeking.

The Mayor’s Office does not have any documents responsive to your request.

Then, to test testing whether it was just the mayor whose records their office didn't maintain, I sent another request to the Office of the Mayor - this time specifically for the FOIA officer's phone records and got the same response.

Maybe another department has the records?

VoIP Logs Request

An outstanding question I had (and still have, to some extent) is whether or not server logs are accessible through FOIA. So, to kill two birds with one stone, I sent a request for VoIP server logs to Chicago's Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT):

Please attach in a standard text, compressed format, all VoIP server logs that would contain phone numbers dialed between the dates of 11/24/14 and 12/04/14 for [the mayor's phone].

Ten days later (and five days late), I received a response that my request was being reviewed. Because they were late to respond, IL FOIA says that they can no longer reject my request if it's unduly burdensome - one of the more interesting statutory pieces of IL FOIA.

The phone... records?

A month goes by, and they send back a two page PDF with phone numbers whose last four digits are redacted:

...along with a two and a half page letter explaining why. I really encourage you to read it.

tl;dr of their response and its records:

  1. They claim that the review/redaction process would be extremely unduly burdensome - even though they were 5 days late!
  2. The pdf includes 83 separate phone calls, with 45 unique phone numbers.
  3. The last four digit of each phone number is removed.
  4. Government issued cell phones’ numbers have been removed completely for privacy reasons.
  5. Private phone numbers aren’t being redacted to the same extent as government cell phones.
  6. Government desk phones are redacted.

Their response is particularly strange, because IL FOIA says:

"disclosure of information that bears on the public duties of public employees and officials shall not be considered an invasion of personal privacy."

With the help of my lawyer, I sent an email to Chicago explaining this... and never received a response. Time to appeal!

Request for Review

In many IL FOIA rejections, the following text is written at the bottom:

You have a right of review of this denial by the IL Attorney General's Public Access Counselor, who can be contacted at 500 S. Second St., Springfield, IL 62706 or by telephone at (217)(558)-0486. You may also seek judicial review of a denial under 5 ILCS 140/11 of FOIA.

I went the first route by submitting a Request for Review (RFR). The RFR letter can be boiled down to:

  1. They stopped responding.
  2. Redaction favors the government personnel’s privacy over individuals’, despite FOIA statute.
  3. Their response to the original request took ten days.

Seven Months Later

Turns out RFRs are very, very slow. So - seven months later, I received a RFR closing letter with a non-binding opinion saying that Chicago should send the records I requested. Their reason mostly boils down to Chicago not giving sufficient reason to call the request unduly burdensome.

A long month later - August 11, 2015: - Chicago responds with this, saying that my original request was for VoIP server logs, which Chicago doesn’t have:

[H]e requested "VoIP server logs," which the Department has established it does not possess. As a result, the City respectfully disagrees with your direction to produce records showing telephone numbers, as there is not an outstanding FOIA request for responsive records in the possession of the Department.

Sure enough, his phone is pretty ancient:

Image Source

Do Over

And so after nine months of what felt like wasted effort, I submitted another request that same day:

Please attach [...] phone numbers dialed between the dates of 11/24/14 and 12/04/14 for [the Office of the Mayor]

Two weeks later - this time with an on-time extension letter - I'm sent another file that looks like this:

The exact same file. They even sent the same rejection reasons!


On 12/2/2015, Loevy & Loevy filed suit against Chicago’s DoIT. The summary of the complaint is that we disagree with their claim that to review and redact the phone records would be extremely unduly burdensome. My part in this was waiting while my lawyer did all the work. I wasn't really involved in this part, so there's really not much for me to write about.

Lawsuit conclusion

Six months later, on May 11, 2016, the city settled and gave me four pages of phone logs - most of which were still redacted. Some battles, eh?

Interesting bits from the court document:

...DoIT and its counsel became aware that, in its August 24, 2015 response, DoIT had inadvertently misidentified the universe of responsive numbers. DoIT identified approximately 130 additional phone numbers dialed from the phones dialed within Suite 507 of City Hall, bringing the total to 171

...FOIA only compels the production of listed numbers belonging to businesses, governmental agencies and other entities, and only those numbers which are not work-issued cell phones.

...DoIT asserted that compliance with plaintiff request was overly burdensome pursuant to Section 3(g) of FOIA. On those grounds —rather than provide no numbers at all — DoIT redacted the last four digits of all phone numbers provided other words, they "googled" each number to determine whether that number was publically listed, and, if so, to whom it belonged. This resulted in the identification of 57 out of the 137 responsive numbers...

Lawsuit Records

All in all, the phone records contained:

  1. 171 unique phone log entries: 57 unredacted and 114 redacted.
  2. 32 unique unredacted phone numbers.
  3. 44 unique redacted phone numbers.

From there, there really wasn't much to work with. Most of the phone calls were day-to-day calls to places like flower shops, doctors and restaurants.

Still, some numbers are interesting:

  1. A four-hour hotel: Prestige Club: Aura
  2. Investigative services: Statewide Investigative Services and Kennealy & O'Callaghanh
  3. Michael Madigan

Data: Lawsuit Records

Going deeper

With all of that done – a year and a half in total for one request - I wasn’t feeling satisfied and dug deeper. This time, I started approaching it methodically to build a toolchain of sorts. So, to determine whether the same length of time could be requested without another lawsuit:

Please provide me with the to/from telephone numbers, duration, time and date of all calls dialed from 121 N La Salle St #507, Chicago, IL 60602 for the below dates.

April 6-9, 2015
November 23-25, 2015

And sure enough, two weeks later, I received two pdfs with phone records – this time with times, dates, from number and call length! Much faster now! Still, it’s lame that they’re still redacting a lot, and there wasn't anything interesting in these records.

Data: Long Distance, Local

Full year of records

How about for a full year for a small set of previously released phone numbers?

Please provide to me, for the year of 2014, the datetime and dialed-from number for the below numbers from the [Office of the Mayor]

(312) 942-1222 [Statewide Investigative Services]
(505) 747-4912 [Azura Investigations]
(708) 272-6000 [Aura - Prestige Club]
(773) 783-4855 [Kennealy & O'Callaghanh]
(312) 606-9999 [Siam Rice]
(312) 553-5698 [Some guy named Norman Kwong]

Again, success!

Siam Rice: 55 calls!
Statewide Investigative Services: 8 calls
Keannealy & O'Callaghanh: 10 calls
Some guy named Norman Kwong: 3 calls

(Interestingly enough, they didn't give me the prestige club phone numbers. Heh!)

Data: Full year records

Full year of records - City hall

And finally, another request for previously released numbers – across all of city hall in 2014 and 2015:

The phone numbers, names and call times to and from the phone numbers listed below during 2014 and 2015 [within city hall]

(312) 942-1222 [Statewide Investigative Services]
(773) 783-4855 [Kennealy & O'Callaghanh]
(312) 346-4321 [Madigan & Getzendanner]
(773) 581-8000 [Michael Madigan]
(708) 272-6000 [Aura - Prestige Club]

Data: City hall full year

This means that a few methods of retrieving phone records are possible:

  1. A week's worth of (mostly redacted) records from a high profile office.
  2. A phone records through an office as big as the City Hall.
  3. The use of requesting unredacted phone numbers for future requests.

Phone directory woes

Of the 27 distinct Chicago phone numbers found within the last request’s records, only five of them could be resolved to a phone number found in Chicago’s phone directory:


This is a problem that I haven't solved for yet, but it should be easy enough by requesting a full phone directory from Chicago's DoIT. Anyone up for that challenge? ;)


This probably deserves its own blog post, but I wanted tease it a bit, because it leads into other posts.

I sent this request with the presumption that the redaction of emails would take a very long time:

From all emails sent from [the Office of the Mayor] between 11/24/14 and 12/04/14, please provide me to all domain names for all email addresses in the to/cc/bcc. From each email, include the sender's address and sent times.

Two months later, I received a 1,751 page document with full email addresses for to, from cc, and bcc, including the times of 18,860 separate emails to and from the mayor’s office. Neat - it only took about a year and a half to figure out how to parse the damn thing, though....

Interestingly, the mayor's email address isn't in there that often...

Data: Email Metadata

What's next?

This whole process was a complete and total pain. The usefulness of knowing the ongoings of our government - especially at its highest levels - are critical for ensuring that our government is open and honest. It really shouldn't have been this difficult, but it was. The difficulties led me down an interesting path of doing many similar requests - and boy are there stories.

Next post: The time Seattle accidentally sent me 30m emails for ~$30.


Scraping Chicago's phone directory Parsing 1,700 page email pdf

Tags: foia, phone, email, data, chicago