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UK Ministers' Private Communications Subject To Freedom of Information Act

timothy posted about 2 years ago | from the acting-within-the-scope-of-office dept.

United Kingdom 38

Techmeology writes "Emails and texts sent from UK ministers' private accounts could be subject to the Freedom of Information Act, which means copies could be requested by members of the public. New guidelines to be released by the government say that the key factor is 'the nature of the information and not the format.' This development comes amid a two year dispute caused when a newspaper used the act to obtain and publish an email sent from the education minister's private email address."

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38 comments

Old stuff in most of the USA (1)

vlm (69642) | about 2 years ago | (#41505897)

This is old stuff in most of the USA, I think the UK will survive its new rules. Content is more important than the domain name in the email address.

Its officially discouraged and unofficially encouraged because some random dotcom will not be backing up emails for 5 years, so you can honestly later say its deleted and unrecoverable, whereas internally its probably perma-stored by policy. On the other hand when it comes to SLAPP attacks against the small fry, its a powerful weapon.

Re:Old stuff in most of the USA (4, Insightful)

Nerdfest (867930) | about 2 years ago | (#41506185)

Perhaps it will wake them up a little to the privacy violating laws they've been pushing on the people they're supposed to represent.

Re:Old stuff in most of the USA (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41506469)

Except for the new elite, of course. The untouchable "climate scientists".

http://yro.slashdot.org/story/12/09/18/1232223/judge-preserves-privacy-of-climate-scientists-emails [slashdot.org]

Re:Old stuff in most of the USA (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41506581)

Let me guess, you believe in Creation too?

Re:Old stuff in most of the USA (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41506663)

No, I'm not a US citizen.

Re:Old stuff in most of the USA (1)

Type44Q (1233630) | about 2 years ago | (#41507213)

No, I'm not a US citizen.

We're relieved to hear that you're selective in your delusions. :)

They're eminently reachable. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41511289)

The science is published widely. If you think the science is wrong, the information is out there.

But, despite all the caterwauling for the CRU's sources of datat, seven years after the data's release, NOTHING has been done with it by those so insistent.

Re:Old stuff in most of the USA (1)

davester666 (731373) | about 2 years ago | (#41507199)

First, gmail seems to have done a better job at preserving millions of people's email than say, the process the IT department under George Bush did.

I believe it was, each person had to manually export "all" their email [on their personal honor] as pad files, then copy the files somewhere else where for the emails to be actually retained. Obviously, you had to use OutLook. Repeat periodically, and you have to track for yourself which emails were already exported and which are new.

What could go wrong?

And I think there have been FOIA problems in the US where people have intentionally used private email accounts to conduct gov't business and then deny FOIA requests on the private accounts [not just the private emails].

Old Stuff in Europe too (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41527805)

It's not new in other European countries either, it's just a new, expansion of the policy in the UK [as far as I can tell].

Comedy or Tragedy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41505901)

quake at the imbecility of it

Tony Blair quakes at the imbecility and talks about sticks and mallets.

Good deal (5, Interesting)

fustakrakich (1673220) | about 2 years ago | (#41505943)

Give them the same privacy they want to allow the rest of us.. Actually they should have much less when considering the power they are given. Seems fair.

Re:Good deal (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41506105)

In the UK, "same privacy they want to allow the rest of us", is zero privacy. See CRB and RIPA. So I see no problem with newspaper having access to their bathrooms either.

Re:Good deal (1)

Hentes (2461350) | about 2 years ago | (#41507415)

If you take away the privacy of your leaders you will only get leaders who don't care about privacy. Do you really want celebrity-types running the country?

Re:Good deal (2)

fustakrakich (1673220) | about 2 years ago | (#41507459)

Do you really want celebrity-types running the country?

Are you saying we don't have precisely that now? Besides, I read about plenty of celebrities crying about their privacy all the time. I.m just calling for equal treatment, or an exchange (give up your privacy, amongst other things, for authority).

How does requesting work? (2)

wisnoskij (1206448) | about 2 years ago | (#41505969)

Unless some agency catalogues and publishes all document titles, at least, how would you go about requesting something you know nothing about.
Can you just ask for any email to/from a particular address, or any email with a certain keyword?

Re:How does requesting work? (1)

TubeSteak (669689) | about 2 years ago | (#41506135)

Can you just ask for any email to/from a particular address, or any email with a certain keyword?

Yep.
You don't even have to be as specific as "a certain keyword," you can request specific topics.

After that, it's up to the reviewer to redact or deny permission for anything that would not be eligible for release.

Re:How does requesting work? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41506259)

Dear _____________

I am requesting a copy of the following information pursuant to [applicable FOIA law].

[Detail here what records you want. Try to be as specific as possible to ensure that you receive what you are seeking. For example, "I would like copies of all correspondence between members of the city council and ABC Industries from June 10, 2012 through August 30, 2012." or "I would like copies of all correspondence pertaining to ABC Industries' application for a permit to build within city limits dated june 10 2012 between members of the city council or between members of the city council and ABC Industries.]

The most requests for records are routine and should be handled immediately. [applicable FOIA law] says that a reasonable delay in responding to a
request is allowed under some circumstances, but shall not exceed [usually twenty] calendar days and ordinarily should not exceed [usually ten] business days.

[applicable FOIA law] requires government bodies to communicate an estimated cost for fulfilling a records request and also says that the fee shall not exceed the actual cost of providing the service. I hereby waive such notice unless the estimated cost for fulfilling my request shall exceed $20.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,
[Your name and contact information]

Re:How does requesting work? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41506471)

After that, it's up to the reviewer to redact or deny permission for anything that would not be eligible for release.

I propose the complete removal of the catchall excuse known as 'national security' specifically for this purpose, there should be no secrets in government, without exception.

Re:How does requesting work? (1)

AmiMoJo (196126) | about 2 years ago | (#41506887)

You can ask for certain information, and it is then up the organization to figure out what is relevant in answering your question. You can ask for specific documents if you know they exist, or if not just ask what documents do exist.

Re:How does requesting work? (1)

wisnoskij (1206448) | about 2 years ago | (#41507095)

Sounds very very time consumptive.
For example asking what documents do exist would have to be a 10 million plus long list.
And asking for certain infomation would mean someone would have to read through every single documetn to figure out which 10,000 (most likely) are relevent out of the multiple millions.

Re:How does requesting work? (1)

Rogerborg (306625) | about 2 years ago | (#41509145)

From experience, you request all emails, memos and meeting minutes relevant to a subject from a government department or public body.

They reply that the information is classified, contains personal information that would be too burdensome to remove, or (if they're being honest) just reply with a variant of "Sod off, peon. We are obliged to tell you that you can appeal this decision."

You then appeal the decision, and the person who told a minion to tell you to sod off then tells you to sod off directly.

Then you get to appeal to the Information Commissioner's Office.

8 to 12 weeks later, you get an acknowledgement that your appeal has been received.

About 3 months after that, you get a note that it is being investigated.

A further 3 months passes and the ICO tells you that they have raised the matter with the original department or body.

And finally, 6 months later, you are told that your appeal has been unsuccessful, thank you, come again.

Perhaps if you're a media outlet with lawyers on staff you can get different results, but I've found that in the UK, information is only free in principle, not in practice.

Re:How does requesting work? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41510197)

WhatDoTheyKnow has piles of FOI results. You can go see for yourself what sort of requests are made, what the responses are, how long it takes, what sort of questions don't work (very vague questions never work, it's not their job to figure out what you might be interested in knowing) and so on.

You can see at a glance that of the FOI results they've proxied, more than 60% were already successful and less than 20% have failed (including where a request asked for something that doesn't exist, e.g. "Can you tell me how many paperclips the Home Office used in the year 1964?")

Or, you can believe some guy on Slashdot who tells you an anecdote stuffed with hyperbole. I guess your choice reflects the value of Freedom of Information.

Slightly misleading headline (4, Informative)

julian67 (1022593) | about 2 years ago | (#41506041)

From the article:

"New government guidance will say the act relates to "the nature of the information and not the format"

Which means that communications re government business will fall under the Freedom of Information Act, that is they will be discoverable, regardless of the medium of transmission/storage. Personal exchanges will remain private.

This doesn't mean that anyone gets to read ministers' personal/domestic/private sms or emails /partners but it does mean that ministers can't hide official business under unofficial accounts.

Another benefit is that it might discourage ministers/officials conducting business on accounts which are hosted by potentially insecure and definitely unaccountable webmail providers, many of which would be storing data and hosting services outside the UK.

Re:Slightly misleading headline (1)

abigsmurf (919188) | about 2 years ago | (#41511353)

It means a third party will still have to read their private emails.

Given how leaky the UK government is (both from civil servants being bribed by the press and from ministers using leaks to further their agenda), It's probably going to result in genuine private emails being leaked, especially if they contain 'juicy' info about medical conditions or their thoughts on colleagues.

Gordon Brown had to deal with press splashing front pages with the news that his son had cystic fibrosis, just hours after he'd learnt of it and before he'd even told anyone else.

Re:Slightly misleading headline (1)

julian67 (1022593) | about 2 years ago | (#41512239)

If you communicate via webmail or sms then there are already third parties (the organisations and people who provide those services) who can read your communications, and if the messages are not encrypted then there are several more places along the route where the content can be captured.

It is courting disaster to conduct confidential or government business via domestic webmail, sms or any services that are not accountable, auditable and vetted, and hosted by companies that are subject to UK law.

The fact that people within government departments and political parties gossip/leak, whether inadvertantly or deliberately, doesn't make it a good idea to conduct government business on hotmail or gmail or chat. It means that the existing regulations and laws are not being observed. The sanctions and remedies in those cases are already available and it's the responsibility of officials and politicians to enforce this, *not* to try to get around it by conducting public business in secret.

The fact that the Brown family's intimate private affairs were leaked or stolen makes for a very good illustration. Those thefts came from his *personal* affairs, not from government departments. In another instance the Sunday Times managed to access his *personal* legal and bank files. ref: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-14119225 [bbc.co.uk]

Re:Slightly misleading headline (1)

abigsmurf (919188) | about 2 years ago | (#41512405)

If you go the "it's not a problem if existing laws/rules are followed" route, then it invalidates to reasoning to making private emails be subject to FOIA requests in the first place.

The problem with enforcing the monitoring of emails is that it removes all traceability of data. If I was being paid by the press as a Gmail employee to sift through a private email account, I would show up on their logs as having viewed it and probably be sacked and/or arrested (this frequently happens when stupid CRB approved people get given access to large databases) . However if I have permission to view that email and leak the contents, they've no way of really tracing it back to me, especially if I'm part of a team. It's how Brown's kid's medical record was able to be leaked. Once printed out, and talked about by doctors, anyone could've got that info and they'd have no way of knowing who.

The Sunday Telegraph thing happened because (at the time) they were too scared to go after the press, despite it clearly being illegal and not in the public's interest. They probably wouldn't get away with that now without charges as ministers and police are no longer scared to go after the press.

Re:Slightly misleading headline (1)

julian67 (1022593) | about 2 years ago | (#41512673)

"However if I have permission to view that email and leak the contents, they've no way of really tracing it back to me, especially if I'm part of a team"

Absolutely not true. I've worked in environments (a large corporation in UK and a regional police force) where data protection is taken seriously. In each case I was part of a team and routinely handled private and confidential information (and of course had signed an acknowledgement of the official secrets act). Every single time I accessed data, even if only to view it, I was and remained identifiable. Everyone was audited both routinely and randomly and any unusual or unexpected access prompted specific inquiries from above. A grossly inappropriate access could result in dismissal. I have seen this for myself after some jealous sap did some sniffing around accounts of their ex partner's new companion - they were escorted from their desk by company security, suspended and subsequently prosecuted, convicted and fired. One colleague accross the desk from me dealt with an account enquiry from an *extremely* prominent person and her jaw nearly hit the desk when 5 minutes later the company security office was on the phone making sure she had been accessing and modifying the account legitimately. These things *can* be done properly and it's ridiculous to imagine that an employee can navigate their way around audited company or government systems without leaving an identifiable trail.

Politicians (2)

p0p0 (1841106) | about 2 years ago | (#41506169)

It always seemed odd to me how much money politicians make and how much more rights they seem to have than us. I've always thought it would be neat if to become a politician, all personal information would be made public, all future communications made public, and their income maxed at the national average. None of this $100,000+ a year bollocks.

Now there are lots of holes in my idea, but I feel like it would force politicians to be more honest about what they were doing. It would bring them back down to Earth at the very least and bring the more dishonest ones to the front to be judged. But such a large amount of information would probably just flood over the relevant information with useless facts about each and every politician, and verification would be almost impossible.

Nice to imagine though, that politicians do what they do because it is right and they want to help instead of just taking bribes from lobbyists and corporations.

Re:Politicians (2)

queazocotal (915608) | about 2 years ago | (#41506523)

A hard cap on salary at the average would have a simple effect.
Only rich people would become politicians.
They would be even more likely to 'suffer' for a short while, while lining up contacts for future lucrative contracts in industry.

Re:Politicians (1)

Inda (580031) | about 2 years ago | (#41511297)

We're talking about the UK. The vast majority of MPs are already rich. Their parents made them so. It's a social class thing.

A report 12 months or so ago showed that 80% of MPs in the cabinet were millionaires.

Re:Politicians (1)

Alomex (148003) | about 2 years ago | (#41507061)

It always seemed odd to me how much money politicians make

You gotta be kidding. In what sense do they make too much money? Almost any politician would make far more in the private sector.

I happen to know a cadre of senior pundits with high end connections around here and all of them would have to take a pay cut if they were to become members of cabinet.

If you pay low salaries to politicians you are assured to get one of four things:

- Mediocre people
- Power hungry egomaniacs
- Corrupt people
- Millionaires

and to be fair, far behind the four above you get a fifth option, which happens ever so rarely:

- people who care

Re:Politicians (1)

misexistentialist (1537887) | about 2 years ago | (#41508267)

If they already make too little, might as well pay them less. And they are already mediocre, power hungry, corrupt, millionaires, so I doubt things would get much worse.

Re:Politicians (1)

Alomex (148003) | about 2 years ago | (#41508301)

So if there is already a fire we might as well throw gas at it rather than water? Seriously dude, think about that one for a sec.

Re:Politicians (2)

Kittenman (971447) | about 2 years ago | (#41509531)

It always seemed odd to me how much money politicians make

You gotta be kidding. In what sense do they make too much money? Almost any politician would make far more in the private sector.

I happen to know a cadre of senior pundits with high end connections around here and all of them would have to take a pay cut if they were to become members of cabinet.

If you pay low salaries to politicians you are assured to get one of four things:

- Mediocre people - Power hungry egomaniacs - Corrupt people - Millionaires

and to be fair, far behind the four above you get a fifth option, which happens ever so rarely:

- people who care

Tut. Ancient Greece used to not pay people in public office at all. I don't think the ancient Romans did either (though there were other benefits...). The Greeks used to do it as part of their civic duty.

Actually that's an idea - pay public servants the same rate as us plebs get paid for jury service...

The UK FoI Act is weak and toothless (1)

UpnAtom (551727) | about 2 years ago | (#41506591)

It took 4 years 1 month and 18 days to comply with the first ever Freedom of Information Act request:
https://p10.secure.hostingprod.com/@spyblog.org.uk/ssl/spyblog/2009/03/19/ogc-finally-publish-the-two-stage-zero-gateway-reviews-of-the-id-cards-programme.html [hostingprod.com]

This is down to:
a) the watering down of the Bill by Tony Blair after entering office on a supposedly pro-democracy agenda.
b) a deliberately underfunded Office of the Information Commissioner (£20m or about £1,200 per case to deal with stalling ministers, legal costs etc). If you're wondering why you're getting endless illegal robocalls, the same office is supposed to deal with it somehow.

And in case anyone's feeling sorry for ministers, Freedom of Information Act also has exemptions for national security, harm to international relations/public affairs/any individuals' health:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_Information_Act_2000#Harm-based_exemptions [wikipedia.org]

Re:The UK FoI Act is weak and toothless (1)

Xest (935314) | about 2 years ago | (#41506899)

I've noticed a lot of councils etc. bypass the act by using the maximum cost get-out clause too.

They apparently don't have to honour requests that would cost over a certain amount to honour, which sounds fine to stop people DDOSing them with expensive requests, but what happens is often people will get a response saying:

"Sorry, we wont honour this as it's too expensive, it'll take x number of days at £y amount of staff time to fulfil"

Which again sounds fine, until you do the math. The £y value often implies they were going to pay someone £60k a year just to do a basic £14k a year office junior job of collating files and scanning them in.

It's really disgusting and they need to be pulled up on it.

Re:The UK FoI Act is weak and toothless (1)

newcastlejon (1483695) | about 2 years ago | (#41507211)

Which again sounds fine, until you do the math. The £y value often implies they were going to pay someone £60k a year just to do a basic £14k a year office junior job of collating files and scanning them in.

It's really disgusting and they need to be pulled up on it.

Devil's advocate time.
While collecting all the files and posting them out is well within a humble administrative officer's skill, determining what to redact and what to release is well above their pay grade.

Re:The UK FoI Act is weak and toothless (1)

Xest (935314) | about 2 years ago | (#41511055)

Yeah if you're talking about data where redactions is required. When you're dealing with local government, much of the time and with many of the requests that's not the case.

Even in those cases where redaction is required, why not just get someone to spend a day redacting at £60k a year rather than claim they need that person to do all the work of collating and scanning too?

It's a get out clause that's abused when they either a) can't be arsed to do the work (which having worked in local government myself seems to be a kind of terminal illness amongst the majority of employees there), or b) don't want to be embarassed.

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