Recently in Freedom of Information Category

Cross posted from the main Spy Blog:

If, like us, you are worried about the Government's planned restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act, as outlined in this Consultation:

Draft Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2007

you might want to sign this Pledge on PledgeBank:

http://www.pledgebank.com/foivisit

"I will visit my MP in person to explain why I'm concerned about the possible changes to FOI rules but only if 2 other people in my constituency will come with me."

Deadline to sign up by: 1st March 2007

Following on from the claim that the Interception of Communications Commissioner, is technically exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, we emailed the Department for Constitutional Affairs to have this public office added to the List of Organisations in Schdeule 1 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Here is the reply:

Thank you for your email asking us to cover under section 4 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 the Interception of Communications Commissioner, the Intelligence Services Commissioner, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner for Northern Ireland and the Office of the Chief Surveillance Commissioner (the Chief Surveillance Commissioner and Assistant Surveillance Commissioners). If these bodies and offices do in fact meet the conditions in s. 4 FOIA, there is no obligation for the Secretary of State to add all bodies that meet the section 4 conditions to the Act.

All of them are appointed by the Prime Minister, as a result of an Act of Parliament. Both of the section 4 conditions are clearly met.

However his policy is that where bodies meet the conditions they should be added to the Act, apart from in a few exceptional cases where it is not appropriate to do so. One case is where it is likely that no additional information could be released under the Act. In such instances, we feel that it would be misleading to the public to add a body to Schedule 1 and of no additional value in terms of accountability.

Are they saying that "Interception of Communications Commissioner, the Intelligence Services Commissioner, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner for Northern Ireland and the Office of the Chief Surveillance Commissioner (the Chief Surveillance Commissioner and Assistant Surveillance Commissioners)" are all examples of such "exceptional cases" ?

For example, tribunals are not covered by the Act because court records are exempt from release under the Act. The Office of Surveillance Commissioners is a tribunal and therefore we have not brought it under the Act.

It must be disputed that the Office of the Chief Surveillance Commissioner, Sir Andrew Leggatt, is actually a tribunal.

His functions are analagous to that of the Office of the Information Commissioner, who also hears certain appeals, and issues Decision Notices etc. via letter or email, but does not actually preside over a Tribunal, with the power to call witnesses etc. and whose decisions are subject to an actual Tribunal.

There is such a Tribunal, established under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) Section 65, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal

http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts2000/00023--f.htm#65

which is currently headed by Lord Justice Munnery, who, together with the other members of the Tribunal are appointed by Her Majesty through Letters Patent.

None of the Commissioners appointed by the Prime Minister under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act serve as members of this Tribunal, and are, in fact, expected to testify before it as witnesses.

We did not, therefore, ask for this Investigatory Powers Tribunal or the Intelligence Services Tribunal to be added to Schedule 1 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The other RIPA Commissioners apart ftom the Chief Surveillance Commissioner, have even less of a claim to be considered as Tribunals, and their decisions are subject to the Interception Powers Tribunal and/or the Intelligence Services Tribunal.

As you are no doubt aware, the Security Agencies are not "public authorities" under the Act (by virtue of the definition of "government department" in section 84 of the Act).

The Commissioners are bound by statute to report annually to parliament, and this meets the public interest in these areas of government work. Because their work relates to security and intelligence and the detection and prevention of crime, it is likely that other information held by these bodies would be covered by one or more of the Act's exemptions.

Some of the RIPA Commissioners' work does indeed relate to secret intelligence matters, but the vast majority of it relates to normal crime, in exactly the same way as with various Police Forces, and Police Authorities, all of which do have Publication Schemes under the Freedom of Information Act.

There are matters of transparency and the public interest on which the Commissioners could respond to Freedom of information Act requests, within the protection of the Exemptions to the Act, without posing any risk to the confidential matters which they are meant to be providing public scrutiny of.

They could publish their own financial and expense accounts, meeting diaries, web site traffic statistics and advice and guidance to practioners, guidance on new technological developments e.g. Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems, or on forthcoming legislation e.g. new European Union Directives, and publish copies of their previous reports etc.

The RIPA Commissioners are being asked to expand their oversight roles, into areas where they do not actually have any formal statutory powers, e.g. the interceptions of communications in Prisons, or the access by the intelligence agencies to the proposed National Identity Register etc., The public should be able to request information, for example, to see if these additional roles and responsibilities are being properly funded and resourced by the Government.

There is even a precedent, in the public interest, for publishing statistics about the number of requests and appeals to these Commissioners from the public, in exactly the same way as the Information Commissioner had to acknowledge the current backlog of Freedom of Information Act appeals which his Office is trying to deal with.

Is it not the aim of the Freedom of Information Act to promote a culture of openness, which means that actual Freedom of Information Act requests per se, are unnecessary ?

Best wishes,

AAA BBB
Information Rights Division

Freedom of information, and public trust and transparency, for these RIPA Commissioners, is at least as important, in the public interest, as for any of the other public bodies currently covered by Schedule 1.

We would urge the Department for Constitutional Affairs to reconsider, and to add these RIPA Commissioners to Schedule 1 of the Freedom of Information Act as soon as possible.

Our original email request:

We have had a reply from The Assistant Private Secretary to the Interception of Communications Commissioner regarding our Freedom of Information Act request regarding the "Wilson Doctrine" administrative exemption of Members of Parliament to telephone interception.

The letter claims that "your request cannot be acted on". Quelle surprise !

It should be noted that other public bodies which claim not to be such under the FOIA, do try to answer questions from the public, in the spirit of the FOIA e.g. the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Technically the Interception of Communications Commissioner
may not be designated as a Public Body yet, but the office certainly meets both of the conditions in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 section 4 Amendment of Schedule 1 to be included in the list of Public Bodies by Order:

2) The first condition is that the body or office- (a) is established by virtue of Her Majesty's prerogative or by an enactment or by subordinate legislation, or

(b) is established in any other way by a Minister of the Crown in his capacity as Minister, by a government department or by the National Assembly for Wales.

(3) The second condition is-

(a) in the case of a body, that the body is wholly or partly constituted by appointment made by the Crown, by a Minister of the Crown, by a government department or by the National Assembly for Wales, or

(b) in the case of an office, that appointments to the office are made by the Crown, by a Minister of the Crown, by a government department or by the National Assembly for Wales.

There can be no question that both of these criteria are clearly fulfilled by Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 section 57 Interception of Communications Commissioner

57. - (1) The Prime Minister shall appoint a Commissioner to be known as the Interception of Communications Commissioner.

We will be writing to the Department for Constitutional Affairs to have all the Commissioners established by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act added to the Schedule 1 list of Public Bodies.

The letter from The Assistant Private Secretary to the Interception of Communications Commissioner:

The Home Office have still not complied with our FOIA request for the official meeting diaries, agenda and expenses of senior members of the Home Office Identity Cards Programme team.

This is despite promising to reply "within 15 days" after they were already a week beyond the statutory 20 working days time limit.

Is this a deliberate tactic of neiither complying with the request, nor formally denying it, designed to delay the whole issue until after the forthcoming election ?

Will the attitude change once the Civil Service takes over the running of the country during the General Election period, or will they simply make no Freedom of Information Act decisions at all during this period ?

Is it worth initiating a Home Office Internal Review into these delays, before any refusal or disclosure ?

All this FOIA stuff is very new, so here is our first attempt at getting the Information Commissioner to review an FOIA request, in this case the saga of the Office of Government Commerce Gateway Reviews of the Home Office Identity Cards Programme.

You can only complain to the Information Commissioner once the public authoritiy's internal review process has been exhausted.

Following the feeble disclosure from the Office of Government Commerce regarding our FOIA request for the now out of date Gateway Reviews of the Home Office's Identity Cards Programme, we asked for an internal review.

As feared, this has not elicited any more information about the Identity Cards Programme.

All the arguements used about why it is allegedly not in the public interest to disclose these Gateway Reviews, are exactly what the Civil Service marshalled against the whole concept of Freedom of Information. Where is the alleged "culture change" that the years of preparation and training for the Freedom of Information Act should have produced ?

Is "Sir Humphrey Appleby" still in charge ?

Has this FOIA request been deliberately delayed by the politicians and spin doctors, for the full statutory 20 working days, followed by a further 15 working days for "public interest balancing", followed by another month of "internal review", simply to avoid producing any answers which might have informed the debates during the various stages of the controversial Identity Cards Bill ?

How can it be that the high level details of actual project objectivesa and risks, for the Identity Cards Programme, a multi-billion pound project, with massive implications for the whole relationship between the State and the Citizen will not emerge until the project disaster that many people fear, has already wasted our money, and compromised both our civil liberties and national security ?

The Criminal Records Bureau disaster happened because the basic assumptions of how the public would use the service were wrong i.e. the assumption was individual disclosure applications via a web page, in real life there were multiple, bulk disclosure requests via post and by phone.

Why doesn't the Government publish these so called Gateway Reviews, without personally identifying any of the civil servants and consultants, only their conclusions and recommendations ?

Having exhausted the internal appeal process, only now is it possible to submit this FOIA request to the Information Commissioner for a ruling.

Presumably the "Department for Constitutional Affairs Clearing House for Freedom of Information Act enquiries" mentioned in the reply below, is the "secret spin unit" which this article in The Independent refers to ?

Internal Review reply:

A reader of this blog draws our attention to a long running battle with bureacracy at the Driver and Vehicle Licesnsing Agency, which seems to have been resolved by a Freedom of Information Act request:

"Thought you might be interested a forum posting I read today.

It concerns somebody's attempts to get a simple geographic number
alternative to the DVLA's 0870 numbers so they can be contacted at a
lower cost and from outside the UK.

They had various evasive and downright inaccurate responses and kept
saying that they were not give out such a number. The person then sent
an FOI request and got a simple reply on the 20th day:

http://www.saynoto0870.com/cgi-bin/forum/YaBB.cgi?board=news;action=display;num=1095264985

The final response is on page three by "idb" if you don't have time to
read much of it.

Thanks, and keep up the good work!"

One good comment in the discussion thread is a riposte to the suggestion that people should contact the BBC's "Watchdog" consumer rights TV programme about the issue - except that they too are profiting from a Premium Rate 0870 number !

It is not just the DVLA which has switched over to 0870 Premium Rate phone numbers for their main public enquiry phone line, in contravention of the offical guidlines quoted in the forum discussion thread above, so has the Home Office, and the Department for Education and Skills.

A Google search reveals that lots of other UK Government departments and agencies are also ripping off the public with 0870 Premium Rate numbers from which they derive, more and more revenue, the longer they keep you hanging on the phone.

The Inland Revenue, the National Health Service Direct system and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs use a 0845 "national local rate" numbers, but these are also often more expensive than a direct phone call, for many people.

Is it worth asking, via FOIA requests, who made the decisions to move over to 0870 Premium Rate phone numbers in each of these cases, and how they can be justified for the main public phone enquiry lines for public services ? What role did the telecomms sales people have in getting public authorities to change over to these relatively expensive services ?

There may be a place for premium rate numbers for some specialised services, but surely the main public enquiry phone numbers for Government Departments and Agencies should be 0800 Freephone numbers within the United Kingdom, many of which are available to contact various Government Departments, with normal Subscriber Trunk Dialing international contact number alternatives ?

It is now about halfway through the statutory response period of 20 working days for the first of our Freedom of Information Act requests.

Thanks to links from Need To Know, Cryptome and The Register, various search engines and blog aggregators etc., we have had tens of thousands of web visits to this blog, and hundreds from *.gsi.gov.uk UK Government Secure Intranet gateways, Central Government Departments, Quasi Autonomous Non Govermental Organisations (QUANGOs) and Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs) and also from Local Government domains.

However, as suspected, we have had, as yet, no contact or acknowledgement from any of the public bodies we have submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to, apart from a couple of immediate automatic autoresponder/out of office replies from a couple of the email addresses we sent copies of our requests to.

Why doesn't the Department for Constitutional Affairs run a public website front end to a centralised FOIA request tracking system (we cannot possibly cope with even listing the over 100,000 public bodies apparently covered by the legislation) ? This would help them monitor the effectiveness of their FOIA strategy, and would cut down duplicate requests for the same exempted information over and over again e.g. the legal advice for the war in Iraq etc.

"human anonymising proxy" for FOIA requests ?

| 2 Comments

Welcome to all the visitors to this blog website coming via the links posted by Cryptome and Need To Know.

"The shadowy figures behind SPY.ORG.UK (of which we cannot speak, but who have haunted NTK since issue 1) have started a blog to gather and their track Freedom of Information requests, so you can have a nice RSS feed of wriggling civil servant replies. And, just to make life even more snugly private, you can anonymously provide your own requests, which they will forward as a sort of human anonymising proxy."

We would feel honoured if people chose to trust us to act as such a Trusted Third Party to act as a "human anonymising proxy" intermediary for Freedom of Information Act requests.

For the vast majority of people who make a Freedom of Information Act request, there should be no problems, and no need to get someone else to submit their request.

Howver, given the attitude of some public authorities, some of who are raising the dubious spectre of "mosaic attacks" through multiple FOIA requests, some people may wish to make suggestions via this blog.

If you are feeling paranoid, feel free to use anonymous remailers and/or our public PGP encryption keys for blog@spy.org.uk - more likely to be used by our Cryptome visitors than the NTK ones, we suspect.

We are hoping that by publishing the details of the FOIA requests which our limited resources allow us to make, sympathetic people "in the know" will guide our requests towards specific documents which they are aware of, hidden through the obscurity of the what passes for public sector document management and filing systems.

Bear in mind the large list of exemptions to the FOIA and the discussions about government resources versus the public's right to be informed.

FOIA request = "mosaic attack" on the Police ?

Are FOIA requestors going to be treated by the Police as if they were part of an organised "mosaic attack" intelligence gathering operation conducted by criminals or terrorists ? c.f. this Spy Blog article:

"FOIA requestors to be treated as suspects by the Police ?

About this blog

This United Kingdom based blog has been spawned from Spy Blog, and is meant to provide a place to track our Freedom of Information Act 2000 requests to United Kingdom Government and other Public Authorities.

If you have suggestions for other FOIA requests,  bearing in mind the large list of exemptions, then email them to us, or use the comments facility on this blog, and we will see  what we can do, without you yourself having to come under the direct scrutiny of  "Sir Humphrey Appleby" or his minions.

Email Contact

Please feel free to email us your views about this website or news about the issues it tries to comment on:

email: blog @spy[dot]org[dot]uk

Here is our PGP public encryption key or download it via a PGP Keyserver.

WhatDoTheyKnow.com

WhatDoTheyKnow.com - FOIA request submission and publication website from MySociety.org

Campaign Button Links

Watching Them, Watching Us - UK Public CCTV Surveillance Regulation Campaign
UK Public CCTV Surveillance Regulation Campaign

NO2ID Campaign - cross party opposition to the NuLabour Compulsory Biometric ID Card
NO2ID Campaign - cross party opposition to the NuLabour Compulsory Biometric ID Card and National Identity Register centralised database.

Gary McKinnon is facing extradition to the USA under the controversial Extradition Act 2003, without any prima facie evidence or charges brought against him in a UK court. Try him here in the UK, under UK law.
Gary McKinnon is facing extradition to the USA under the controversial Extradition Act 2003, without any prima facie evidence or charges brought against him in a UK court. Try him here in the UK, under UK law.

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FreeFarid.com - Kafkaesque extradition of Farid Hilali under the European Arrest Warrant to Spain

Peaceful resistance to the curtailment of our rights to Free Assembly and Free Speech in the SOCPA Designated Area around Parliament Square and beyond
Parliament Protest blog - resistance to the Designated Area restricting peaceful demonstrations or lobbying in the vicinity of Parliament.

Petition to the European Commission and European Parliament against their vague Data Retention plans
Data Retention is No Solution - Petition to the European Commission and European Parliament against their vague Data Retention plans.

Save Parliament: Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill (and other issues)
Save Parliament - Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill (and other issues)

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Open Rights Group

The Big Opt Out Campaign - opt out of having your NHS Care Record medical records and personal details stored insecurely on a massive national centralised database.

Tor - the onion routing network
Tor - the onion routing network - "Tor aims to defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal anonymity and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security. Communications are bounced around a distributed network of servers called onion routers, protecting you from websites that build profiles of your interests, local eavesdroppers that read your data or learn what sites you visit, and even the onion routers themselves."

Tor - the onion routing network
Anonymous Blogging with Wordpress and Tor - useful Guide published by Global Voices Advocacy with step by step software configuration screenshots (updated March 10th 2009).

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Amnesty International's irrepressible.info campaign

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BlogSafer - wiki with multilingual guides to anonymous blogging

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NGO in a box - Security Edition privacy and security software tools

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Home Office Watch blog, "a single repository of all the shambolic errors and mistakes made by the British Home Office compiled from Parliamentary Questions, news reports, and tip-offs by the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs team." - does this apply to the Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition government as well ?

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Reporters Without Borders - Reporters Sans Frontières - campaign for journalists 'and bloggers' freedom in repressive countries and war zones.

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Committee to Protect Bloggers - "devoted to the protection of bloggers worldwide with a focus on highlighting the plight of bloggers threatened and imprisoned by their government."

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Icelanders are NOT terrorists ! - despite Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling's use of anti-terrorism legislation to seize the assets of Icelandic banks.

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No CCTV - The Campaign Against CCTV

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I'm a Photographer Not a Terrorist !

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Power 2010 cross party, political reform campaign

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Cracking the Black Box - "aims to expose technology that is being used in inappropriate ways. We hope to bring together the insights of experts and whistleblowers to shine a light into the dark recesses of systems that are responsible for causing many of the privacy problems faced by millions of people."

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Open Rights Group - Petition against the renewal of the Interception Modernisation Programme

Yes, Minister

Yes, Minister Series 1, Episode 1, "Open Government" First airtime BBC: 25 February 1980

"Bernard Woolley: "Well, yes, Sir...I mean, it [open government] is the Minister's policy after all."
Sir Arnold: "My dear boy, it is a contradiction in terms: you can be open or you can have government."

FOIA Links

Campaign for the Freedom of Information

Office of the Information Commissioner,
who is meant to regulate the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Scottish Information Commissioner,
who similarly regulates the Freedom of Information Act (Scotland) 2002

Information Tribunal - deals with appeals against decisions by the Information Commissioners.

Freedom of Information pages - Department for Constitutional Affairs

Friends of the Earth FOIA Request Generator and links to contact details for Central Government Departments and their Publication Schemes

UK Government Information Asset Register - in theory, this should point you to the correct Government documents, but in practice...well see for yourself.

Access all Information is also logging some FOIA requests

foi.mysociety.org - prototype FOIA request submission, tracking and publication website

Blog Links

Spy Blog

UK Freedom of Information Act Blog - started by Steve Wood, now handed over to Katherine Gundersen

Your Right To Know - Heather Brooke

Informaticopia - Rod Ward

Open Secrets - a blog about freedom of information by BBC journalist Martin Rosenbaum

Panopticon blog - by Timothy Pitt-Payne and Anya Proops. Timothy Pitt-Payne is probably the leading legal expert on the UK's Freedom of Information Act law, often appearing on behlaf of the Information Commissioner's Office at the Information Tribunal.

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