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United Kingdom Government Privacy Your Rights Online

UK Ministers' Private Communications Subject To Freedom of Information Act 38

Posted by timothy
from the acting-within-the-scope-of-office dept.
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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UK Ministers' Private Communications Subject To Freedom of Information Act

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  • 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.

    • by Nerdfest (867930) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @11:09AM (#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.

    • 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

  • Good deal (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fustakrakich (1673220) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @10:21AM (#41505943) Journal

    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.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      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?

      • 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).

  • by wisnoskij (1206448) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @10:28AM (#41505969) Homepage

    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?

    • by TubeSteak (669689)

      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.

    • by AmiMoJo (196126)

      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.

      • 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.

    • by Rogerborg (306625)

      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.

  • by julian67 (1022593) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @10:42AM (#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.

    • by abigsmurf (919188)
      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
      • by julian67 (1022593)

        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 t

        • by abigsmurf (919188)
          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 appro
          • by julian67 (1022593)

            "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 i

  • by p0p0 (1841106) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @11:05AM (#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.
    • 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.

      • by Inda (580031)
        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.
    • by Alomex (148003)

      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

      • 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.
        • by Alomex (148003)

          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.

      • by Kittenman (971447)

        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...

  • 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 stall

    • by Xest (935314)

      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 Â

      • 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.

        • by Xest (935314)

          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 governm

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