1. Freedom of Information during the pandemic

    The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having an impact on response times to Freedom of Information requests. Please see this information from the Information Commissioner’s Office, and the Scottish Information Commissioner. You can contact the WhatDoTheyKnow team if you have any questions about your requests.

     

    At times of crisis, the need for factual information is clear — and Freedom of Information is the lawful mechanism by which we can demand it. And yet, it is becoming increasingly obvious that across the world, rights to information are being eroded, by design or by circumstance, as governments and authorities deal with the effects of COVID-19.

    Rather than restrict access to information, at this time bodies should be moving towards proactive release, and any necessary restrictions that are put in place must be temporary and time limited.

    Keeping our rights intact

    At WhatDoTheyKnow we are, of course, resolute that we must not allow the current situation to cause lost ground in the right to hold our authorities accountable.

    Nonetheless, we do of course recognise the difficulties involved for authorities in keeping a service running at a time when the workforce may be depleted, staff may be working from home and not able to access physical files, and resources may be quite rightly being prioritised on the frontline of the fight to keep the population safe.

    We call for a common sense approach that balances this new working environment with the enhanced need for public information:

    • A recognition that not all authorities and not all departments will be equally affected by the current crisis. While it is clear that those which are working in the areas of health, policing, and other frontline activities are likely to be the least able to dedicate resources to FOI, other authorities/departments should do all they can to keep their channels of information open and active.
    • In the spirit of transparency and public interest, all authorities should commit to the proactive publication of information, without the need for it to be requested. This should especially apply to decisions being made around public health, responses to COVID-19, and changes to rights and freedoms of citizens; and the data informing these decisions. Proactive publication requires fewer resources than responding to individual requests as they arise.
    • Measures that are put in place to relax the right to information during this fast-moving environment must be recognised as temporary and reassessed at regular frequent intervals. When the health crisis has passed, they must be removed and the right to information must be restored to the same, or better, status as previously enjoyed by citizens.

    Information is vital

    More than ever, now is the time to ask questions: what plans do our governments have in place to tackle this unprecedented threat? What research is guiding their actions? How are they meeting targets for testing, for vital equipment, for hospital beds?

    Or, just as importantly, as Julia Keseru asks in this piece: how are the most vulnerable in society being impacted by the broad stroke decisions being implemented?

    In the UK, the government has stated a commitment to transparency: “In fast moving situations, transparency should be at the heart of what the government does”. But the gaps in existing data are noted by Jeni Tennison here, alongside a call for private companies to do what they can.

    And at the same time, we’ve seen a relaxation of authorities’ obligations under the FOI Act in recognition of stretched resources and depleted staff.

    These have taken the form of a notification from the ICO that they will be more lenient towards authorities providing late responses, and messages from authorities themselves that they will be providing a cut-down service.

    Guy’s Hospital, for example, is understandably responding with a plea for people to consider whether their request is really required; while Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council are auto-responding: “The Council is not currently in a position to respond to your request. This is as a result of ensuring that all available resources are diverted to support the community and we can continue to deliver essential and priority services during the unprecedented crisis presented by COVID19. Please resubmit your request at a later date and not before 8th June“.

    Scotland’s emergency bill, voted through yesterday, massively extended the deadline for responses despite intervention from campaigners and MSPs. As a result, WhatDoTheyKnow’s auto-prompts when an authority has not responded within the mandated timeframe are currently wrong, and we’ll be looking at correcting this as soon as we can. [Update: We now account for the new law in Scotland, but there may be a few existing requests or authorities that we’ve missed out, so please get in touch if you have questions about your request.]

    Information doesn’t just allow us to hold our governments to account over the actions they take during this crisis. As Newspeak House’s Corona Virus Tech Handbook has vividly demonstrated, shared knowledge allows collaboration, in some cases across borders, that may literally save lives.

    A global lapse

    Meanwhile, in countries around the world, the reaction has ranged from New Zealand’s ‘pro-transparency’ response, documented along with less hopeful dispatches from other countries in this post from Global Investigative Journalism Network, to Hungary’s worrying move to rule by decree.

    At WhatDoTheyKnow, we stand by our international community of friends and colleagues who value the citizens’ right to know.

    Access to Information and journalists’ networks are monitoring the erosion or upholding of our rights across the world, and will act to preserve them where we can.

    Image: Dimitri Karastelev

  2. FOI reveals that Higher Education Institutes spend more than £330 million on access to research journals

    Stuart Lawson is a librarian, one of the editors at the Journal of Radical Librarianship, and a part of the open access movement which advocates that research outputs should be distributed for free and online, with an open license — for the good of all.

    So it should come as no surprise to learn that some of Stuart’s recent research, informed by Freedom of Information requests to the UK’s Higher Education Institutes, has focused on research journals — and specifically, how much institutes are paying for subscriptions. You can see the requests here, the data released in this spreadsheet, and the resulting report here.

    The study collected details of payments made by HEIs for access to academic journals from 2017-2019,  focusing on ten publishers. The research team discovered that the total expenditure was more than £330 million.

    We spoke to Stuart and asked for some background to this FOI-based investigation, beginning with an explanation of the original motivation behind it:

    “Open access publishing means that research is available to everyone, but there are debates around how that model can be paid for. And since there is currently a mixed system where some publications are open access and some require subscriptions to access, libraries are continuing to pay a lot of money for subscriptions while also trying to find ways to fund open access.

    “I am a librarian who wants all research to be published open access rather than behind a paywall, so I felt that it was important to know the financial costs of the current system.

    “Previously, the amounts were unknown. It’s impossible to have conversations about the appropriate cost of scholarly publishing if we don’t know what those costs are in the first place!”

    The need for FOI

    Freedom of Information is, of course, a practical way to obtain data from public authorities, and to build up a nationwide picture. But in this case, it was vital.

    “Using the legal tool of FOI was the only way to get this data, as institutions were not voluntarily releasing it.

    “One publisher, Elsevier, even had a clause in the contracts signed by libraries that forbade them from telling anyone how much they were spending, unless they were required to via an FOI request.

    “These ‘non-disclosure’ clauses are common worldwide in publisher contracts, but thankfully not widely used in the UK (except by Elsevier) because Jisc — the higher education body that negotiates most deals — have worked to remove them”.

    Despite the reluctance that one might assume that this signified, Stuart says getting the required information was pretty straightforward once they’d submitted the FOI requests. In fact, the hardest part was the admin:

    “A majority of HEIs provided the data promptly, although some refused in the first instance which meant I need to push back and sometimes requested an internal review of the handling of the request.

    “Eventually most institutions provided the data, but the hold-outs caused a lot more work for me”.

    Making requests in public

    Why was WhatDoTheyKnow particularly suitable for this project?

    “It was the best way that I knew of to make bulk requests to organisations. But more importantly for me, I wanted to make sure there was a complete public record of all responses so that when I compiled the data, others could verify it”.

    That’s one of the reasons that WhatDoTheyKnow is set up to publish FOI requests and responses online, so we were glad to hear this.

    And what is Stuart’s desired outcome from this study?

    “For people to realise the high cost of subscription charges, and for libraries to question how much they are spending. And perhaps even cancel some of the deals and spend their money on enabling open access instead.”

    It’s possible that this piece of research will be enough of an eye-opener to start making a change in this area. But Stuart’s realistic:

    “I hope I don’t need to send these requests again in future years, but the situation is still moving quite slowly, so it might be necessary to use WhatDoTheyKnow once again!”

    Image: Bruno Mira

  3. Who uses WhatDoTheyKnow?

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    When people make their first Freedom of Information request using WhatDoTheyKnow they are sent an email two weeks later, asking them to complete a survey.  This survey has been running from 2012 and in that time has received 6,861 replies. Because this is an optional survey and not a requirement of making a request, this is a small proportion of the number of first time requesters in that time (around 3-4%).  This response rate reflects that the survey is currently quite long and asks questions that, while more useful when the service was new, are now less helpful in understanding its ongoing impact. 

    As it’s unclear how representative this sample is of requesters of WhatDoTheyKnow, the overall results shouldn’t be read as authoritative of the user base. What is more interesting is how different groups of respondents use the site in different ways. The data from the surveys has been added to the explorer minisite, a research tool that uses chi-square tests to examine if there is a statistically significant difference in the distribution of responses.

    Survey demographics

    Looking at the overall picture, the average age of respondents is around 45-54. 

    There were more than double the number of male respondents as female respondents. 17% of respondents said they had a disability. Disability is a broad category where self-identification can vary, which makes comparison to national figures difficult. However in 2011, 8.5% of the population of England and Wales were ‘limited a lot’ in their daily life as a result of a health problem of disability, while 9.3% were ‘limited a little’. This suggests that use of WhatDoTheyKnow is not broadly different  from the national picture – however this could be disguising variation within different kinds of disability. 

    There is a good spread of income ranges among respondents — but the average respondent has a greater income than the UK median of around £28,000.

    43% of respondents were working full time, 10% were working part time and 21% were retired. A majority (57%) were university educated. 

    On ethnicity, most respondents declared ‘British’ or ‘English’. 16% were part of a BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) group. Because of the small number of responses over a large range of ethnicities, a second ‘reduced’ option was created by grouping responses that just presents BAME/Not BAME/NA. This would make general trends statistically detectable, but may also disguise trends when different ethnic groups have effects in different directions. 

    Over time there is a small number of trends. There is a slow rise in the number of female respondents – from 24% to 33% in 2019. There was statistically a larger proportion of BAME respondents in  2015 and 2016 (19-20%) and fewer in 2012-13 (13%). The number of respondents with disabilities does not show any significant differences between years.

    Authority type

    BAME respondents are more likely to write to Education, Central Government and Other than the general dataset, and less likely to write to health, local government, emergency services, military services, and media and culture.  BAME survey respondents make up 5% of requests to media and culture and 29% of education respondents. 

    Female respondents are more likely than male respondents to write to education and health authorities than the general dataset, and are less likely to write to emergency services, media and culture, transport, and military and security services. Female survey respondents make up 14% of requests to military and security services, and 40% to education. 

    Respondents with disabilities are more likely to write to health-related authorities and the emergency services than the general dataset, and less likely to write to transport and education. Respondents with disabilities make up 9% of requests to education authorities and 26% for health authorities.

    Retired respondents are more likely to write to environment-related and local authorities, and less likely to write to central government and education. Retired respondents make up 7% of requests to education authorities to 33% for environment-related authorities . 

    Reversing the lens to look at one type of authority, respondents writing to education authorities are more likely than the general dataset to be female (but still majority male) and more likely to be part of a BAME group (but still majority white). They are more likely to be below the age of 24 and less likely to be above 55 than the general dataset and (related to that) more likely to be in education and less likely to be retired. 

    Message concern

    46% of respondents said they were writing on behalf of ‘all people in the community’. This group was more likely to be retired, less likely to be part of BAME group, but more likely to be part of a community group (but not a political group alone). 

    20% said they were writing on behalf of themselves/family as well as similar people. 

    14% said they were writing on behalf of all people — this group was slightly more likely to be earning less than 12,500, have excellent internet access, and more likely to be involved in political activity (less likely to be part of a community group), to have made FOI requests before, and to make lots of FOI requests.  

    13% said they were writing on behalf of themselves or family. This group has a spread on age, but is more likely to be older than 75 (and less likely to be 45-54) than the general dataset. 46% are still university educated, but this is less than the general dataset and this group is more likely to be have secondary or technical college qualifications, and slightly likely to be part of a BAME group than the general dataset (while still majority not BAME). This group is more likely to not be involved in groups or to previously have made requests.

    Previous FOI use

    The profile of a user who had never made a request before using the site is in many respects similar to other users. This group contains slightly more 25-34 year olds and those in full time education. They are more likely to be making requests where the information is mostly relevant for themselves/family or people similar and more likely to not be involved in community or political groups.

    What’s next?

    While this survey has found some interesting things about our users, it’s currently overly-long and has a much lower response rate than some of our comparable surveys. We’re looking at the best way of modernising the questions and survey platform to replace this survey, while maintaining continuity with some of the trends identified above. 

    Photo by Shawn Ang on Unsplash

  4. 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

  5. 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

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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

  9. 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

     

  10. 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)