1. Help Privacy International discover how the police are accessing your online activity

    You may remember our recent post on the surveillance techniques in use by police forces, as investigated by the campaign group Privacy International.

    Several of you tweeted or commented that you were concerned to read of these new technologies. Well, here’s a way that you can get involved in finding out more.

    Privacy International are asking people to submit an FOI request to their local police force, to enquire whether they are using cloud extraction technology.

    Sounds fluffy? The reality is a bit more chilling. Cloud extraction technology allows the police to gain access from a citizen’s mobile phone to cloud based services such as their email, browser activity, and social media. So, if you are stopped and your phone is examined then handed back, surveillance might not stop there. Even after the phone is returned, using this tech police can monitor your online activity on an ongoing basis, seeing what you search for, trawling through your social media posts, and even accessing your location data.

    Whether or not you’ve ever been detained by the police, you might like to know whether this sort of surveillance is in action in your own local neighbourhood. And that’s where FOI comes in.

    To make everything as easy as possible for you, Privacy International have used pre-filled FOI requests* and provided the wording you should include. You can also see which forces have already been contacted, so as not to waste time making duplicate requests. Here’s where to get started.

    Camilla Graham Wood, a Legal Officer at Privacy International, is clear about the benefits WhatDoTheyKnow has brought to their campaigning: “Using WhatDoTheyKnow we have created a way for members of the public to quickly and easily contact their local police force and ask them about intrusive surveillance tech. We were able to embed this on our own website and to pre-fill certain boxes as well as adding a tag so we can follow the progress of the campaign.

    “Engaging the public in this way shows the level of public interest in policing technologies and introduces those who might not have used Freedom of Information request before to this valuable transparency tool”.

    *If you’re running a campaign and you’d like to know how to set up something similar, take a look at this blog post where Gemma explained it all, back in 2016.

    Image: Gilles Lambert

  2. Has your FOI request been used in a news story? Now you can let everyone know.

    We’ve recently made a small change to WhatDoTheyKnow. Now, if your request has resulted in a news story, you can add the link as a ‘citation’.

    If you’re a journalist or a campaigner, we hope this is a useful way to give your stories some more readership (not to mention a nice inbound link from a high-ranked site for your search engine ratings).

    And if you’re simply a citizen whose request was picked up by the press, there’s now a way to share how the information you’ve obtained fits into the news agenda.

    There’s a benefit for the wider transparency community, too. We think that, in aggregate, these links will serve to show others just what a simple FOI request can do.

    Requests often start off as nothing more than an inkling or a nagging question, but there’s always the chance that one of them will reveal important or interesting information, hitting the news, reaching a wider readership and — who knows?  — maybe even changing hearts and minds. For big stories, it will be good to be able to create a permanent record of where it all began.

    More broadly, when you use this feature you’ll be helping us to understand what sort of impact the site is having, too. We’re always keen to spot news stories based on WhatDoTheyKnow requests, but papers don’t always cite a source or link back to the site, meaning that our monitoring is often dependent on a manual search where stories look like they might have originated with one of our users.

    How to add a citation

    You’ll find the feature in the right hand column of your request page. Just click on ‘Let us know’:

    A citation on WhatDoTheyKnow

    …and paste the URL in:

    Adding the URL of a news story on WhatDoTheyKnow

    Here’s how it will show up on the request page, as seen on the first request to gain a citation, which informed a story about electoral letters sent in error:

    a link to the news story on WhatDoTheyKnow

    If there’s more than one story, you can click ‘New Citation’ to add another one.

    The way we’ve set this feature up, WhatDoTheyKnow users can add a citation to any of their own requests — but if you spot a news story that’s linked to a request that isn’t yours, please do contact the WhatDotheyKnow team.

    They’ll assess it and input it if they find it to be valid. Our aim here is, of course, to prevent spammers from adding irrelevant links to the site.

    Users of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, on the other hand, have the ability to add citations to any request.

    This work is one of the ongoing improvements that we’re working on thanks to a grant from Adessium.

    Image: Kaboom Pics

  3. Climate Crisis – the one thing we’ll be talking about this year

    If you’ve had a look at our annual report for 2019 you’ll know that we’re a busy bunch at mySociety, keeping lots of useful civic services running and talking about our work on an almost daily basis.

    In 2020 we’re going to be doing something a bit different.

    You’ll still hear from us regularly through our blogs and research and conference, but we’re going to be talking about one thing above all else – the climate crisis.

    We’ll still talk about democracy; but more than likely we’ll be considering how participatory and deliberative approaches can be useful in finding consensus on the difficult decisions we’ll all need to take to avoid the worst climate impacts. And thanks to your contributions towards the successful crowdfunder for TheyWorkForYou, we’ll be able — along with other much-needed improvements and updates — to help you hold the new parliament to account on how they respond to the climate emergency.

    You’ll still hear from us on transparency; we’ll be helping people make the most of WhatDoTheyKnow to request information from public bodies on how they are responding to the crisis, and we’ll be looking at how we might apply our long experience of improving access to public information to similar private sector services in areas like pensions and investments – where divestment from fossil fuels is urgently needed.

    When we refer to community, and especially our work with FixMyStreet, we’ll be underlining how important it will be to support local democracy and help create resilient flourishing communities if we’re to mitigate how our changing climate will hit the least well off in society.

    One focus, one reason

    We are doing this for one simple reason – there really is not a more important issue facing our society today.

    We can’t address the climate crisis without also addressing the parallel democratic crisis we face in many countries around the world, where lies, deceit and fake news have become normal paths to power.

    We can’t solve issues like climate change without also addressing the lack of equality and fairness in society, where those with the least power and influence will be affected the most.

    And we can’t avoid the worst impacts without building and living with strong and resilient communities where every citizen can play their part.

    So we’ll be exploring what small role we might be able to play at mySociety — both improving our environmental impacts internally, and examining how we align our current and future work with the need to tackle the climate crisis. And alongside this you’ll still be able to report a pothole on FixMyStreet, or follow your MP on TheyWorkForYou on every other topic beyond the climate as usual.

    We’d encourage all our friends and colleagues in civil society, government and the private sector to consider what role they might play themselves both as individuals and through their organisations – and we hope you’ll also share your plans and we can learn more from each other in the year ahead.

    Photo by NASA on Unsplash

  4. WhatDoTheyKnow as fact-checker, part 2

    A lie, as the saying goes, can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.

    That’s all the more so in the age of social media. Whether it starts as a misunderstanding, or a deliberate attempt to mislead, before you know it an untruth can be swept up to make a political point, used in arguments and believed by many — and never mind that there’s no factual basis to it.

    In 2016, we pointed out a meme spreading false allegations about immigrants, and that the response to an FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow was providing a way for people to challenge the post with facts.

    Back then, the false rumour being spread was that immigrants were entitled to benefits payments far in excess of the reality. It came to our attention when we realised that the FOI request proving it wrong had become one of the most-visited pages on WhatDoTheyKnow that month.

    And now, almost exactly the same thing has happened again.

    One of the pages with the highest number of visitors in November was this request asking if people (specifically muslims) using their homes as places of worship are exempt from paying council tax.

    On further investigation as to what might have prompted the surge in traffic, we came across Full Fact’s refutation of the claim, which, as proof, links to the official government guidance.

    The FOI response says “Such an exemption does not exist”.

    A quick search reveals that this isn’t the first FOI request on this subject made on WhatDoTheyKnow. In fact, there are several, dating back to 2009, made by different users to a range of different councils.

    In 2010 Leeds City Council responded to a request that said, “I heard an alarming rumour that newly built houses in Dewsbury in the million pound price bracket were claiming a large reduction in their council tax because one room was deemed a place of worship”.

    The council said: “There is no provision within council tax legislation for discounts or exemptions from Council Tax for residential properties which have a place of worship”.

    And in 2009, Cornwall Council responded to a similar request, “There is not an exemption from Council Tax for houses classed as a place of worship”.

    We don’t know whether the people making these FOI requests were doing so as a way to challenge the meme’s false claims, or because they saw it and sensibly decided to reserve judgement until they knew the facts. Either way, it’s a great use of WhatDoTheyKnow and these responses will stand as a permanent reference point for anyone who wants to check the facts around this matter in the future.

    UPDATE: After tweeting this story, we had a response from Andrew White who gave some further background from his experience on the Parliament petitions service:

    In a terrifying example of how misinformation can be spread in the most unexpected of ways, as you can see in the Facebook video linked to in the tweet, a petition that led with the words Muslims who use their living area’s within their homes as a place of Worship, are exempt from paying Council Tax [sic] was identified by the Amazon virtual assistant Alexa as the most suitable information source for the question “Do Muslims have to pay council tax if they pray in their own homes?”.

    Presumably the fact that the petition was located on an official government website gave it, in Alexa’s view, the credibility needed to cite it as a source.

    Image: Climate Reality

  5. When the response doesn’t come: dealing with FOI requests that haven’t received an answer

    We’ve previously written about how best to proceed when an FOI request has been refused, but when there isn’t a response at all   that’s a slightly different problem. However, up until now, we’ve treated both in the same way. We’ve now made some changes to reflect the difference.

    If you do receive a response, but feel it’s inadequate or that your request has been wrongly refused, there are two ways of contesting the outcome. The first is to ask for an internal review, where the request is reassessed inside the same authority (by a different team or person). The second is to appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

    To reflect this, our approach when providing prompts to WhatDoTheyKnow users has been an escalation ladder — suggesting people request an internal review, and then appeal to the ICO if still dissatisfied. However,  as we learned when talking to the ICO earlier in the year, that this isn’t always the fastest route to getting a response.

    An internal review is useful when disagreeing with a decision, but when the issue is that the statutory deadline for a response has passed, and follow-up messages haven’t been answered — a situation our colleagues at Access Info aptly refer to as ‘administrative silence’ — it can be better to complain directly to the ICO.

    According to the statutory code of practice, a public body may take up to 20 working days to undertake a review, and so this route is likely to result in further delay, whereas an intervention by the ICO may have a faster result.

    So when a request is overdue, our email prompt will no longer suggest that users might want to seek an internal review, but instead we suggest sending a follow-up message to the authority and note that they can appeal directly to the ICO.

    However, if you have an issue with the actual decision of a request (for instance, disputing an exemption applied), internal review is the correct first port of call — and in a surprising amount of cases can be very successful. While we don’t have figures covering all kinds of authorities, for requests made to central government, 22% of internal reviews resulted in some change to the original decision (and 9% were completely overturned) and for local government this figure is between 36-49%.

    Both internal reviews and appeals to the ICO can be effective methods at redressing disputes around Freedom of Information requests, but it is important to consider which is the right tool for the situation.

    Image: Ümit Bulut

  6. FOI helps reveal the new surveillance tools deployed by police

    Camilla Graham Wood is a Legal Officer at Privacy International, an organisation advocating and litigating for stronger protections of citizens’ privacy, dignity, and freedom.

    At AlaveteliCon, Camilla presented on PI’s ‘Neighbourhood Watched’ campaign against the deployment of new technologies by police forces in the UK, many of which are unknown to the general public — and unrestricted by current regulation.

    These include facial recognition, hacking, mobile phone extractions, and predictive policing: all examples of the police harnessing new technology with the aim of becoming more efficient — but where PI see great risks for the loss of liberties and for mistakes to be made. Freedom Of Information has been a crucial tool in their efforts to uncover the facts.

    An initial tip-off

    We asked Camilla how the organisation had first become aware of these technologies.

    “It’s hard to find out about technologies if the state doesn’t want you to know about them.”

    “We were contacted by investigative news co-operative Bristol Cable, who had looked into police accounting records and seen reference to Cellebrite, an international company well known for selling mobile phone extraction technology”.

    Mobile extraction allows the police to download all content and data from a phone. At AlaveteliCon, Camilla explained, “They fit a device, about the size of an iPad, to your phone and it will copy across everything on there. This was rolled out, without any announcement, around the London Olympics.

    “Obviously you might have concerns around police accessing the material that’s on your phone at that time, but there are also ongoing implications — for example if you don’t change your password afterwards, they then have access to all your various accounts on an ongoing basis — they can access your email, social media etc.

    “So we decided to take Bristol Cable’s investigation further, and that led to the use of FOI to uncover the extent that this technology was being used, particularly for low level crimes.

    “We anticipated this would show whether it was being used on a wide scale by frontline police officers. And it is”.

    Neither confirm nor deny

    “New surveillance technologies are radically transforming the ability of police and intelligence agencies to monitor our civic spaces.”

    That may sound like a simple result: put in some FOI requests, get the information back. In reality, though, it has not been quite so easy. “The state often does not want to say when they’re using specific technologies, so they will use the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ response. It’s hard to find out about technologies if the state doesn’t want you to know about them.

    “We sent FOI requests to all 43 police forces in the UK in January 2017 to find out which were using this technology in relation to low level crimes. We then sent follow-up requests later in the year. A large number of the forces responded that this second request was vexatious, largely because we had already asked questions about other forms of surveillance such as predictive policing, facial recognition and social media monitoring. They said that because we had already asked about what new technologies they were using, our FOI request on mobile phone extraction was vexatious.

    “This meant that we had to request individually to each force to conduct an internal review, then subsequently a review by the Information Commissioners Office. But we were, at least, successful in this challenge”.

    Camilla explains that although PI eventually received these responses, a number of them had had to restrict the amount of information provided due to time and cost limits. That in itself revealed something pretty telling — an inability to audit the use of mobile phone extraction. “It appears that the data is held on individual files, so they could not tell us how many victims, witnesses and suspects had been subject to this technique”.

    The work hasn’t all been adversarial though. At AlaveteliCon, Camilla explained how she had attended police conferences as a speaker. Though a little daunted, she found that she was warmly welcomed by officers who wanted to know more about how they could better answer FOI requests.

    Facial recognition, body cameras and predictive policing

    “PI is particularly concerned about technologies that police can, and sometimes do already use to monitor people who have not committed nor are suspected of any crime.”

    What are the other devices and methods in use that the public may not be fully aware of? Camilla highlights body cameras which can be switched on or off by the police officer wearing them, and the footage from which can be used in tandem with facial recognition.

    Then there are IMSI catchers, which imitate a mobile phone mast and are able to monitor your location and activity. Also of concern are predictive policing methods, which raise all kinds of issues around biases that are baked in to the system — Beryl Lipton from Muckrock in the US is also doing work around this, and we’ll be writing about that in a further post soon.

    Should we be worried?

    Reading about such technologies, one might dismiss any concerns — after all, police have a job to do, and it’s natural that they should be using the latest advances in tech to do so. Camilla spells out why we should apply a little more judgement:

    “FOI is one of many options we’ve used to discover information about what the government is doing, often in secret. It can be one of the few means to find out that information.”

    “New surveillance technologies are radically transforming the ability of police and intelligence agencies to monitor our civic spaces and collect, categorise, store, analyse, and share our personal data. These authorities are expanding the depth and breadth of their surveillance of our civic spaces (by that I mean real life spaces like public streets, parks and squares, as well as digital spheres including the internet, messaging apps, and social media platforms), often without sufficient legal basis or democratic input and oversight.

    “While new technologies may be deployed under the guise of protecting democratic society, without adequate regulations and safeguards those technologies can threaten democratic participation and dissent — and thereby undermine democracy itself.

    “PI is particularly concerned about technologies that police and intelligence agencies can, and sometimes do already use to monitor people who have not committed nor are suspected of any crime”.

    Freedom of Information is the key to transparency

    “People have a right to transparency around the technologies that are being used; they have a right to question whether there is any justification for the deployment of these tools”

    So, time to deploy our right to information, something that every UK citizen enjoys. How useful has FOI been to the campaign?

    “FOI is one of many options we’ve used to discover information about what the government is doing, often in secret.

    “It can be one of the few means to find out that information. As far as I am aware, there was nothing published on the use of mobile phone extraction by the police. The public were unaware the scale that this was being used.

    “As a result of our FOI activity, this has been brought into the open”.

    Taking it further

    But PI’s activity and the wider repercussions of the campaign don’t stop there. “Based on these findings, we published a report.

    “We’ve also written to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner stating that we believe the use of this technology may constitute hacking or interception.

    “We have complained to the Information Commissioner that the tech is in breach of the old and new data protection act — that complaint is still under investigation. We’ve also given evidence to the Law Commission in relation to their consultation on the use of search powers; an investigation was commenced by the Scottish Parliament into the use of this technology by Police Scotland; and we’ve trained lawyers to raise awareness about this technology.

    “Our work has even informed the debates around the use of this technology against rape survivors and we have raised concerns about the relevant issues to digital forensics”.

    You can get involved

    Now PI hope to get the general public mobilised in protesting these affronts to our privacy. “We hope to see people challenge their local police force on the use of these technologies. As we approach the local elections next year and in particular the election of Police and Crime Commissioners, we would encourage individuals to use the materials in our Neighbourhood Watched campaign and write to their local representatives to ask what new technologies are being used against local residents.

    “People have a right to transparency around the technologies that are being used; they have a right to question whether there is any justification for the deployment of these tools and to ask what safeguards and protections are in place to protect against misuse and abuse”.

    PI are now keen to replicate the Neighbourhood Watched campaign in other countries, to help create more transparency and accountability around these technologies.

    Finally we asked Camilla whether she had advice for those involved in sometimes difficult investigations such as this. She had just three words: “Persistence is key”.

    Image: Phil Hearing

     

  7. Taking Parliament to court: how Vouliwatch pursued the right to transparency

    Vouliwatch is a platform for Greece which strives to make democracy more accessible for all. If you’re familiar with mySociety’s projects, it might be easiest to see it as a mixture of TheyWorkForYou (it publishes MPs’ votes); WriteToThem (making it simple for citizens to contact their representatives), and a campaign for more transparency and better oversight in the country’s parliament, often using Freedom of Information toward these aims.

    This year, Vouliwatch found themselves in the extraordinary position of issuing a lawsuit to their own parliament. Their Managing Director Stefanos Loukopoulos explained how it all happened, in his presentation at AlaveteliCon.

    He left us with quite the cliffhanger — would the case go to court or not? — so we were keen to catch up and find out how it had all resolved. But to begin with, here’s what he told us back in October:

    “In Greece, there’s an independent committee known as the “Committee of Control”: it’s made up of judiciary, ombudsmen, and three MPs sit on it as well.

    “Its role is to audit and check asset declaration and the finances of MPs, as well as the financial activities of political parties.”

    As you’re probably aware, over the last eight years Greece has been in the grips of a massive financial crisis, losing more than 25% of its GDP. Stefanos says, “It’s a situation unknown anywhere else in history.

    “The two parties who were in power during the period that led up to the crisis owe, between them, over 350 million Euros to the banks, the majority of which is unserviceable.”

    So, that’s the background. And now to the nitty gritty of the case.

    “Every year the Committee of Control put out a report. For the last three years it has said exactly the same thing: ‘Some political parties’ have taken public funding which was supposed to be for research, and used it for operational purposes. However, the report doesn’t go into detail of which political party, or how much money.

    We were accused of trying to destabilise democracy. We think that actually, democracy is more harmed by hiding this information!

    “The Committee has the power to impose sanctions, and the law is quite clear on this point: if funds are not being used for what they should be, or are stated to be used for, then they need to be returned… but year after year, these powers weren’t used and nothing was done about it.

    “We believe people have the right to know what’s happened to this public money. We sent letters, but in return we were just accused of trying to destabilise democracy. We think that actually, democracy is more harmed by hiding this information!”

    “After two years, we finally submitted a formal FOI request. We didn’t expect an answer (and we didn’t get one) but at least we were covered by FOI law, so we knew exactly what information we should have been entitled to. After consulting with a law specialist we decided to take Parliament to the constitutional court. This is the first time anything like this has ever happened.”

    And so that was how Vouliwatch ended up issuing a lawsuit to their own parliament. The day Stefanos was telling this tale at AlaveteliCon, things had started to move. He said:

    “The legal team at Parliament have suggested just today that the information we asked for has actually been released, but I haven’t received it yet. I’ll keep you updated. I’d love to take them to court really, it would create a far bigger buzz and perhaps open more people’s eyes to what FOI is and how it can work to expose malpractice.”

    So, of course, when catching up with Stefanos a few weeks later, we were keen to know: was the information released, or did they get to go to court?

    “In brief, yes, the information was released, so there was no court appearance after all.”

    But the effort was still worthwhile on many fronts. The information was, Stefanos says, shocking:

    If it wasn’t for our FOI request and our appeal to the Constitutional Court, no-one would have ever heard about it.

    “The current ruling party Νέα Δημοκρατία (New Democracy) — which, by the way, owes give or take 142,100,000 Euros to the Greek banks (and it should not be forgotten that the banks have been practically recapitalised by the taxpayer on a number of occasions during the crisis) — has been using the state subsidy intended solely for educational and research purposes to repay its loans, for at least two consecutive years. This amounts to about a million Euros.

    “The Committee of Control had actually detected this malpractice, but did not impose any sanctions — and worse, actually tried to conceal the story. If it wasn’t for our FOI request and our appeal to the Constitutional Court, no-one would have ever heard about it.”

    There’s more detail on the whole tale on the Athens Live site. But getting the story out to the wider population has been a struggle, says Stefanos:

    “Unfortunately the media landscape in Greece is very problematic, to say the least. All the big mainstream media groups belong to a handful of oligarchs (shipping tycoons, mainly) who have historically had close ties to the traditional political parties, New Democracy and PASOK.

    “So, unsurprisingly perhaps, our story was covered only by independent media or left leaning newspapers and was totally ignored by all the big media groups.”

    Of course it’s daunting to take your own Parliament to court. But the prospect of facing a court case is also exciting at the same time.

    But there have been some visible results from Vouliwatch’s hard work.

    “The new president of the committee publicly pledged that they would be stricter during the next auditing process.

    “So that’s a positive outcome, but I must say that he didn’t mention anything about adding more details in the next report (which should be published by the end of the month so we are really looking forward to seeing what it will look like).

    “Meanwhile, we got in touch with the parliamentary groups of various parties (except for New Democracy of course) asking them to table a parliamentary question on the issue. The only one that took it up was Μερα25 (Mera25), which is the Greek branch if you like of the Democracy in Europe Movement Diem25, and is led by Yanis Varoufakis. The (oral) question was posed in Parliament during its plenary session and the shadow minister of the interior tried to justify New Democracy’s actions by using legally unfounded arguments.

    “We countered/deconstructed these in a reply and published it out — and Μερα25 is going to use it in their comeback question.”

    And as for Vouliwatch’s day in court? It’s not entirely off the table, though now to the Committee of Control rather than Parliament as a whole: “Currently we’re drafting a lawsuit against the committee for breach of duty and will submit it to the relevant attorney general.”

    This sort of work matters in Greece, and not only to uncover malpractice. Even if it’s hard to get mainstream media coverage, it all helps to highlight people’s right to information and how FOI can be used. But Stefanos says it’s not easy:

    Our case proves that FOI does have a strong role to play in the fight against corruption/lack of transparency

    “FOI in Greece is, unfortunately, virtually non existent. Despite the decent legal framework around it, citizens and journalists alike are unaware of their rights and how to exercise them — and the state (as well as public authorities/institutions in general) have failed to communicate it or make it easy for the public to use.

    “I think our case proves that FOI does have a strong role to play in the fight against corruption/lack of transparency in Greece; however, one may be easily dissuaded and disappointed because in most cases one needs to resort to litigation in order to get a response.

    “In other words, we took the case this far because it’s part of our work as an organisation. I doubt that a citizen or journalist would follow the same strenuous course as we did, bearing in mind the costs of litigation, the time required, the legal research etc, etc.”

    Is it daunting issuing a lawsuit to government?

    “Yes, of course. But the prospect of facing a court case is also exciting at the same time. If we were ordered to pay out a large amount in reparations it would be close to catastrophic for our organisation. However, our case was legally airtight and the chances of losing it minimal, which is why Parliament decided to back off and release the information in the end.”

    Bravo Vouliwatch — and we’ll be watching future happenings with great interest.

    Stefanos Loukopoulos is the managing director of Vouliwatch and spoke at AlaveteliCon in October 2019.

    Image: A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons)

  8. FragDenStaat: a lighthearted approach with a serious mission

    FragDenStaat (“Ask The State”) is Germany’s FOI site, running since 2011.

    Having always provided a platform for the general public to submit FOI requests, the organisation recently made the decision to focus more on the campaigning side of their activities. By using pre-filled FOI requests and encouraging their supporters to send them, FragDenStaat can harness the power of numbers.

    As Project Leader Arne Semsrott explains: “We are trying to show the possibilities of FOI, using it together as a group or movement with a shared goal, not just as separate individuals”.

    It’s an approach they used in a campaign to uncover the hygiene ratings of restaurants (which, unlike the UK, are not routinely published in Germany) — users were invited to file a pre-written request to the relevant authorities, and over 20,000 such requests were made, then the responses published. It’s hoped that doing so will bring about change — FragDenStaat say, “The platform will provide transparency until the authorities do it themselves”.

    More recently, a similar campaign sought to reveal the facts behind the herbicide glyphosate (aka Roundup). It began when FragDenStaat requested a study from the German Federal Institute that stated that the weedkiller “probably” isn’t linked to cancer.

    “We were told not to publish it”, said Arne. “So we published it”.

    This mischievous approach is one of FragDenStaat’s defining qualities, but there’s always a serious point behind it. In this case: “We were told that we weren’t allowed to publish this report, but through FOI, we – and therefore anyone – is allowed to have it. It’s ridiculous.”

    This is also an issue which we sometimes come across at WhatDoTheyKnow, where responses come complete with a generic footer prohibiting the publication of the information. Like FragDenStaat we think there’s a good argument against this. Freedom of Information law in the UK as well as in Germany is “applicant blind”, so anyone can request the same document and get a copy of it. That being so, it is more efficient to publish it online, and it saves taxpayers’ money since the authorities aren’t having to respond to multiple requests for the same information.

    The German Federal Institute thought differently, however, and FragDenStaat were taken to court for copyright violation.

    Officially, the report couldn’t be shared: what now? Arne continues the story: “So we built a one-click mechanism where anyone could make the same FOI request. Within two weeks, 45,000 people had requested it. The Institute had never had so many emails and didn’t know how to cope.

    “We know this because we then requested the internal communications around how they were handling it. They developed an online solution with a log-in code to prevent people spreading the report further. We then developed some code to automatically log you in and download it.

    “The legal proceedings are still pending but we would like to see a judgment by the Court of Justice on copyright vs FOI.

    “If we lose the case it might mean that copyright gets used as a reason for denial in lots more requests. And if this happens, we need to make so much of a fuss that it becomes an unattractive proposition to do so. What we have achieved so far, though, is that we are pretty certain that most public authorities don’t want to confront us that way anymore.”

    Since turning into more of a campaigning organisation, FragDenStaat are involved in more than 45 lawsuits. That might seem daunting to some small organisations, but Arne thinks differently:

    “Over time we have learnt that one of the biggest tools we have to change the practice of FOI is strategic litigation. We have won most of our cases and are always keen to tackle legal questions that have not been addressed in German courts before. We have the feeling that the FragDenStaat community likes our approach and there are enough people who are willing to donate for our legal costs”.

    FragDenStaat consistently bring an inventive angle to their campaigns, which sometimes borders on cheekiness. Asked about this, Arne replies: “To most people, files and documents appear to be the most boring thing on earth (which of course they aren’t!), so we feel that we need a bit of fun to attract people to the topic. And actually it’s way more fun for us that way.

    “I do believe that our actions have forced authorities to take us seriously. There are of course people who are not fans of our work, but there are quite a few FragDenStaat supporters among authorities – even if they don’t show that publicly”.

    Another campaign focuses on migration politics across Europe, and specifically Frontex, the border force. FragDenStaat have been working in collaboration with Luisa Izuzquiza at AccessInfo to file requests and build up a picture of human rights violations towards migrants: “You can file FOI requests for Frontex documents anywhere in Europe, so we’re asking in different countries for ‘serious incident’ reports: these will tell you of human rights violations”.

    This campaign, too, has involved FragDenStaat filing a lawsuit, this time in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The hope is that it will clarify the degree to which Frontex is open to public scrutiny. Again, the costs of litigation are borne by supporters who are encouraged to chip in with a small donation of a few Euros, ideally on an ongoing monthly basis.

    Arne says, “EU migration politics is a topic that I have worked on for a long time now. I think that it’s heavily underreported, especially since Frontex has gained a lot of power and budget increase over the last few years. By talking to activists in the field, we learned what kind of documents might be produced by the agency on a regular basis and we began systematically requesting them”.

    Shockingly, the reports released show that Frontex are well aware of such abuse but close their eyes to it.

    “A report about Libyan refugee camp said it had ‘concentration camp-like conditions’ – and you can be sure that if a German person says that, it is serious. It proves they are aware of the conditions, even though they are doing nothing about them”.

    There have been results to this campaign: the European Commission has now issued a statement saying that they would investigate the claims.

    Arne Semsrott spoke at AlaveteliCon, mySociety’s conference on FOI and technology, in September 2019.

    Arne is one of the folk behind FragDenStaat, which is the German equivalent of our own WhatDoTheyKnow. Unlike many of the FOI sites around the world, FragDenStaat is not run on the Alaveteli platform, but on bespoke software that was inspired by WhatDoTheyKnow in the days before our codebase was made easier to install.

    Incidentally, if you are running a campaign, you can also use pre-written requests in tandem with Alaveteli sites, including WhatDoTheyKnow. Instructions are here.

    Image: Jen Bramley

  9. AlaveteliCon 2019: technology, investigations and collaboration

    We’ve just come back from a heady couple of days in Oslo, where our AlaveteliCon event brought together those with a shared interest in the technology around Freedom of Information — in all, around 50 journalists, researchers, technologists and activists from 18 different countries.

    As our Head of Development Louise announced in her opening words, AlaveteliCon has always been a slight misnomer, given that we’re keen to share knowledge not just with those who use Alaveteli, but with all the FOI platforms in our small but growing community — including MuckRock in the US and Frag Den Staat in Germany, both of whom were in attendance.

    It was a timely event for us, as we embark on work to introduce our Alaveteli Pro functionality to newsrooms, researchers and campaigners across Europe, with an emphasis on encouraging cross-border collaboration in campaigns, research and journalistic investigations.

    As well as picking up practical tips, we heard a variety of inspiring and instructive stories from FOI practitioners around the world; brainstormed ways forward in increasingly difficult political times; and shared knowledge on funding, publicity, site maintenance, and how to keep good relations with FOI officers.

    Some of the most inspiring sessions came when delegates shared how they had used FOI in campaigns and investigations, from Vouliwatch’s Stefanos Loukopoulos explaining how they had taken their own government to court, to Beryl Lipton of MuckRock explaining why the government use of algorithms can have effects that are unforeseen, and indeed petrifying.

    There was an affecting story from freelance journalist Mago Torres, who told us about a long campaign to map clandestine graves of those caught up in the war against drugs in Mexico; and from Camilla Graham Wood of Privacy International, on that organisation’s work to uncover some of the rather sinister but not widely known technologies being put into use by police services in the UK.

    So much knowledge came out of these two days. We don’t want to lose it, so we’ll be making sure to update the conference page with photos, videos and the speakers’ slides as soon as they’re available. Meanwhile, you can follow the links from the agenda on that page to find the collaborative documents where we took notes for each session.

    Thanks to the Adessium Foundation and the NUUG Foundation for making AlaveteliCon 2019 possible. We hope it won’t be another four years before we all get the chance to come together again.

  10. FOI and the Irish border issue

    At the time of writing, a No Deal Brexit seems ever more likely. What exactly will that mean for the UK?

    Attempts to answer this question have filled many column inches, hours of broadcast and endless tweets. There is certainly no lack of opinions.

    But opinions are best based on facts, and it was in this spirit that WhatDoTheyKnow user Jon Rush set out to request vital information about the key Brexit sticking point, and the main reason that a deal is so hard to agree — the Irish border.

    Brexit and the border

    As Jon explains, “Brexit creates serious problems for the current arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement  because they depend heavily on both the UK and RoI being in the EU”.

    He wanted to gain access to the results of a mapping exercise, referred to in a joint report from the EU and UK negotiators but not available to the public at that time, which assessed the level to which co-operation between the North and the South depends on the EU frameworks currently in place.

    Crucial information, you might think, for the general public who will be so affected at every level by whatever type of Brexit we enter into. Jon certainly thought so — but getting hold of it would set him on a long journey.

    A hard-won result

    Jon’s initial request, to the department for Exiting the EU (DEXEU) was in December 2017. You can follow its long and complicated journey on that page, thanks to Jon’s detailed annotations.

    FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously.

    Simultaneously he was requesting the same information via our partner AccessInfo’s site, AskTheEU.com, which covers EU authorities — and meanwhile, MPs in the UK’s Exiting the EU Select Committee requested the same information on numerous occasions throughout 2018, but were repeatedly rebuffed by government.

    Pursuing his right to information would take Jon via the ICO, the European Ombudsman and to the brink of a tribunal, but in the end, the report was indeed released into the public domain.

    What was revealed

    What did it tell us?

    “It contains a description of each area relevant to North-South cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement together with an assessment of how far it is underpinned by EU legal and policy frameworks.

    “The focus in the media has tended to be on trade/customs arrangements, but if you go through the mapping exercise, you find that many other areas of cooperation are underpinned by the EU membership, including transport links, water, waste management, energy, Irish language broadcasting, mobile roaming, invasive species, disease control and cross-border police cooperation.

    “Overall, 96 out of 142 different areas covered by the mapping exercise were found to be supported by EU legal or policy frameworks (with well over a third being “directly underpinned or linked”, ie EU membership is particularly significant).

    “This shows that any workable solution is likely to involve the UK committing to quite a close relationship with the EU, at least in the areas identified as crucial to North-South cooperation”.

    Approaching the UK border on Newtown Road for J0719 The houses beyond the sheugh which here marks the Border are in Co Armagh. The gate in the foreground are those of disused ROI Border facilities. The road sign is a reminder of the Republic's 80kmph speed limit on back roads.

    Disused ROI border facilities in Co Armagh. Image by Eric Jones (CC by-sa/2.0)

    A lack of transparency

    The release of this information was a positive result — but Jon believes that the government has been far from open during the whole Brexit process.

    “To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government. It would be very difficult for an organisation outside government to produce something like the mapping exercise because it requires input from numerous experts across different areas and in some cases, access to information that only government is likely to have.

    “Government is therefore uniquely well placed to provide this information – but if government refuses to share it, it’s impossible to get the full picture.

    “In my view, the government’s approach to its own documents concerning Brexit has been to release as little as humanly possible, arguing that disclosure would undermine its negotiating position with the EU.

    “I accept that occasionally, information may need to be withheld for this reason. But it is equally if not more important that people can understand what Brexit will mean for them —  and I don’t think the government has paid anywhere near enough attention to that issue”.

    Evading scrutiny

    This was not Jon’s first experience using FOI: in fact, he had recently exercised his rights to information on another Brexit matter.

    I asked DEXEU for details of the scope and timetable of their consultation on leaving the EU. This was after David Davis (who was then Secretary of State for Exiting the EU) had told Parliament in September 2016 that the government would be consulting widely on the options for leaving the EU.

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.

    “By late October, nothing had been published, so I made an FOI request through WhatDoTheyKnow.

    “Initially, DEXEU told me it had this information but refused my request, saying that it planned to publish the information at a later date. I didn’t see why the information couldn’t be published sooner and complained to the ICO.

    “Their investigation showed that DEXEU did not have a formal plan or any formal process for the consultation — which explained their somewhat evasive response.

    “DEXEU should probably have told me that it didn’t hold the information I had requested – but to do so would have involved effectively admitting that it didn’t have a plan or any formal process for consultation. You can make up your own mind by reading what the ICO had to say here”.

    Pursuing a refused response

    But back to the Irish border request. When Jon didn’t receive a response from DEXEU, and after requesting a similarly fruitless internal review, he took the next step and referred the matter to the ICO. They ruled against disclosure in a decision that Jon believes was ill-founded:

    “The ICO decision was based on section 35 of the FOI Act, which relates to information produced for the purposes of policy formulation.

    To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government.

    “It is certainly true that the mapping exercise was produced to inform the government’s thinking about Brexit and Northern Ireland. However, it was a summary of the current arrangements, not a discussion of what the future policy options should be; as such, it was essentially background information, which is usually regarded as less sensitive. Section 35(4) makes it clear that there is a particular public interest in the disclosure of background of information – and case law makes it clear that such disclosure can take place before the final policy has been formulated, as I was requesting here.

    “The ICO also argued that disclosure of the mapping exercise would have a “negative effect on discussions” with the EU and “create a distraction to discussions” — but its decision did not explain how this would occur, especially given that the mapping exercise had been shared with the EU.

    “When I put these points to the ICO as part of my appeal to the tribunal, it accepted that the mapping exercise was background information but argued that it should be treated in the same way as discussion of policy options. It was unable or unwilling to provide any further explanation of the supposed negative effects of disclosure and suggested that this was a matter for DEXEU to explain. I was (and remain) very concerned by this because the ICO is supposed to be an independent regulator; it should not simply be taking what government says at face value but should be questioning it and satisfying itself that what government says is actually correct”.

    And so Jon referred the matter to tribunal.

    But in June of this year, two of the key documents he was requesting were finally  released by the government, and he decided to drop his appeal to tribunal, for reasons which you can read in his annotation of the time.

    Motivation

    While many WhatDoTheyKnow users are determined and driven, it’s also true that others would be easily defeated by an initial refusal, not to mention the further rulings. So what gave Jon the will and tenacity to carry on?

    I would encourage people to use FOI … if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want.

    “I knew that appealing to the tribunal would involve quite a lot of time and effort on my part, but I wasn’t prepared to just let this go for two reasons. Firstly, FOI depends on having an effective regulator which is prepared to question government robustly — and if people like me just shrug our shoulders when that doesn’t seem to have happened, then nothing will ever improve.

    “Secondly, Brexit is going to take many years to sort out and there will be many more occasions where people want to use FOI to get information out of government; unless challenged, government will just continue to refuse to disclose information whenever it suits it to do so.

    “Appealing to the tribunal was a new experience for me. I am a lawyer by profession, which probably helped, but I am not an expert in FOI, nor am I a litigator — and I did feel at times that my lack of familiarity with those areas was a handicap. So I have a lot of respect for people who are not lawyers and take cases to the tribunal on their own.

    “I would encourage people to use FOI and I think that what happened with this request shows that, if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want — even in a situation like this where MPs had asked repeatedly for exactly the same information and hadn’t received it.

    “FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously. WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.”

    Jon is also planning to submit a complaint to the ICO about its handling of this case, including the time taken to deal with it:

    “Although it was expedited, it still took over six months, whereas my complaint to the European Ombudsman (which concerned essentially the same material) was dealt with in about half that time.”

    He intends to post a link to the complaint in a further annotation on the FOI request page on WhatDoTheyKnow – so watch this space!

    Many thanks to Jon for taking the time to talk to us about his long and involved pursuit of information, which despite the delays will still help to inform the UK public at this critical time in our country’s history.


    Top image: the Irish border by Andrein (CC by-sa/3.0)