Chris Graham and the cost of FOI tribunals

When Information Commissioner (IC) Christopher Graham speaks, people listen. And so they should: he is the statutory regulator of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) whose role is “to uphold information rights in the public interest”. A speech by Graham is likely be examined carefully, to see if it gives indications of future developments, and this is the reason I am slightly concerned by a particular section of his recent speech at an event in Scotland looking at ten years of the Scottish FOI Act.

The section in question dealt with his envy of his Scottish counterparts. They, he observed, have relatively greater resources, and the Scottish Information Commissioner, unlike him, has a constitutional status that bolsters her independence, but also he envied

the simple and straightforward appeals mechanism in the Scottish legislation. The Scottish Commissioner’s decision is final, subject only to an appeal to the Court of Session on a point of law.

By contrast, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, under section 57 of FOIA, there is a right of appeal to a tribunal (the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights)). Under section 58(2) the Tribunal may review any finding of fact by the IC – this means that the Tribunal is able to substitute its own view for that of the commissioner. In Scotland, by contrast, as Graham indicates, the commissioner’s decision is only able to be overturned if it was wrong as a matter of law.

But there is another key difference arising from the different appellate systems: an appeal to the Tribunal is free, whereas in Scotland an application to the Court of Session requires a fee to be paid (currently £202). Moreover, a court is a different creature to a tribunal: the latter aims to “adopt procedures that are less complicated and more informal” and, as Sir Andrew Leggatt noted in his key 2001 report Tribunals for Users: One System, One Service

Tribunals are intended to provide a simple, accessible system of justice where users can represent themselves

It is very much easier for a litigant to represent herself in the Information tribunal, than it would be in a court.

Clearly, the situation as it currently obtains in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – free right of appeal to a Tribunal which can take a merits view of the case – will lead to more appeals, but isn’t that rather the point? There should be a straightforward way of challenging the decisions of a regulator on access to information matters. Graham bemoans that he is “having to spend too much of my very limited resources on Tribunals and lawyers” but I could have more sympathy if it was the case that this was purely wasted expenditure – if the appeals made were futile and changed nothing – but the figures don’t bear this out. Graham says that this year there have been 179 appeals; I don’t know where his figures are from, but from a rough totting-up of the cases listed on the Tribunal’s website I calculated that there have been about 263 decisions promulgated this year, of which 42 were successful. So, very far from showing an appeal to be a futile exercise, these figures suggest that approximately 1 in 5 was successful (at least in the first instance). What is also notable though, is the small but significant number of consent orders – nine this year. A consent order will result where the parties no longer contest the proceedings, and agree on terms to conclude them. It is speculation on my part but I would be very interested to know how many of those nine orders resulted from the IC deciding on the arguments submitted that his position was no longer sustainable.

What I’m getting at is that the IC doesn’t always get things right in the first instance; therefore, a right of appeal to an independent fact-finding tribunal is a valuable one for applicants. I think it is something we should be proud of, and we should feel sorry for FOI applicants in Scotland who are forced into court litigation (and proving an error of law) in order to challenge a decision there.

Ultimately, the clue to Graham’s disapproval of the right of appeal to Tribunal lies in the words “limited resources”. I do sympathise with his position – FOI regulation is massively underfunded by the government, and I rather suspect that, with better resourcing, Graham would take a different view. But I think his speech was particularly concerning because the issue of whether there should be a fee for bringing a case in the Tribunal was previously raised by the government, in its response to post-legislative scrutiny of FOIA. Things have gone rather quiet on this since, but might Graham’s speech herald the revival of such proposals?

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Hidden data in FOI disclosures

The Hackney Gazette reports that details of 15,000 residents have been published on the internet after Hackney Council apparently inadvertently disclosed the data when responding to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made using the WhatDoTheyKnow site.

This is not the first time that such apparently catastrophic inadvertent disclosures have happened through WhatDoTheyKnow, and, indeed, in 2012 MySociety, who run the site, issued a statement following a similar incident with Islington Council. As that made clear

responses sent via WhatDoTheyKnow are automatically published online without any human intervention – this is the key feature that makes this site both valuable and popular

It is clearly the responsibility of the authorities in question to ensure that no hidden or exempt information is included in FOI disclosures via WhatDoTheyKnow, or indeed, in FOI disclosures in general. A failure to have appropriate organisational and technical safeguards in place can lead to enforcement action by the Information Commissioner’s Office for contraventions of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA): Islington ended up with a monetary penalty notice of £70,000 for their incident, which involved 2000 people. Although the number of data subjects involved is not the only factor the ICO will take into account when deciding what action to take, it is certainly a relevant one: 15000 affected individuals is a hell of a lot.

What concerns me is this sort of thing keeps happening. We don’t know the details of this incident yet, but with such large numbers of data subjects involved it seems likely that it will have involved some sort of dataset, and I would not be at all surprised if it involved purportedly masked or hidden data, such as in a pivot table [EDIT – I’m given to understand that this incident involved cached data in MS Excel]. Around the time of the Islington incident the ICO’s Head of Policy Steve Wood published a blog post drawing attention to the risks. A warning also takes the form of a small piece on a generic page about request handling, which says

take care when using pivot tables to anonymise data in a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet will usually still contain the detailed source data, even if this is hidden and not immediately visible at first glance. Consider converting the spreadsheet to a plain text format (such as CSV) if necessary.

This is fine, but does it go far enough? Last year I wrote on the Guardian web site, and called for greater efforts to be made to highlight the issue. I think that what I wrote then still holds

The ICO must work with the government to offer advice direct to chief executives and those reponsible for risk at councils and NHS bodies (and perhaps other bodies, but these two sectors are probably the highest risk ones). So far these disclosure errors do not appear to have led to harm to those individuals whose private information was compromised, but, without further action, I fear it is only a matter of time.

Time will tell whether this Hackney incident results in a finding of DPA contravention, and ICO enforcement, but in the interim I wish the word would get spread around about how to avoid disclosing hidden data in spreadsheets.

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Filed under Data Protection, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, monetary penalty notice

The Twelve Days of FOI Christmas

For fans of contrived, awful-punning seasonal blog posts that take 20 times longer to write than you imagined when you started, I present…

On the first day of Xmas FOI revealed to me…cartridges for the army

On the second day of Xmas FOI revealed to me two turtle docs and cartridges for the army

On the third day of Xmas FOI revealed to me 3 pinched hens*, two turtle docs and cartridges for the army

On the fourth day of Xmas FOI revealed to me four NADPO nerds, 3 pinched hens, two turtle docs and cartridges for the army

On the fifth day of Christmas FOI revealed to me FIVE GOLD THINGS, four NADPO nerds, 3 pinched hens, two turtle docs and cartridges for the army

On the sixth day of Christmas FOI revealed to me Six Tree Inspections, FIVE GOLD THINGS, four NADPO nerds, 3 pinched hens, two turtle docs and cartridges for the army

On the seventh day of Christmas FOI revealed to me Seven Dons-a-Sinning, Six Tree Inspections, FIVE GOLD THINGS, four NADPO nerds, 3 pinched hens, two turtle docs and cartridges for the army

On the eighth day of Christmas FOI revealed to me Eight-year-olds Bilking, Seven Dons-a-Sinning, Six Tree Inspections, FIVE GOLD THINGS, four NADPO nerds, 3 pinched hens, two turtle docs and cartridges for the army

On the ninth day of Christmas FOI revealed to me Nine  Babies’ chances, Eight-year-olds Bilking, Seven Dons-a-Sinning, Six Tree Inspections, FIVE GOLD THINGS, four NADPO nerds, 3 pinched hens, two turtle docs and cartridges for the army

On the tenth day of Christmas FOI revealed to me Ten Lords-a-Judging, Nine Babies’ chances, Eight-year-olds Bilking, Seven Dons-a-Sinning, Six Tree Inspections, FIVE GOLD THINGS, four NADPO nerds, 3 pinched hens, two turtle docs and cartridges for the army

On the eleventh day of Christmas FOI revealed to me Eleven-plus deciding,Ten Lords-a-Judging, Nine Babies’ chances, Eight-year-olds Bilking, Seven Dons-a-Sinning, Six Tree Inspections, FIVE GOLD THINGS, four NADPO nerds, 3 pinched hens, two turtle docs and cartridges for the army

On the twelfth day of Christmas FOI revealed to me Twelve-Tonne Containers, Eleven-plus deciding,Ten Lords-a-Judging, Nine Babies’ chances, Eight-year-olds Bilking, Seven Dons-a-Sinning, Six Tree Inspections, FIVE GOLD THINGS, four NADPO nerds, 3 pinched hens, two turtle docs and cartridges for the army

*3 large maram hens, page 9, if you were wondering

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FOI disclosure of personal data: balancing of interests

In June this year I blogged about the case of AB v A Chief Constable (Rev 1) [2014] EWHC 1965 (QB). In that case, Mr Justice Cranston had held that, when determining whether personal data is being or has been processed “fairly” (pursuant to the first principle of Schedule One of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA))

assessing fairness involves a balancing of the interests of the data subject in non-disclosure against the public interest in disclosure [¶75]

I was surprised by this reading in of an interests balance to the first principle, and said so in my post. Better people than I disagreed, and I certainly am even less sure now than I was of the correctness of my view.

In any case, the binding authority of the High Court rather trumps my meanderings, and it is cited in a recent decision of the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) in support of a ruling that the London Borough of Merton Council must disclose, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), an email sent to a cabinet member of that council by Stephen Hammond MP. The Tribunal, in overturning the decision of the Information Commissioner, considered the private interests of Mr Hammond, including the fact that he had objected to the disclosure, but felt that these did not carry much weight:

we do not consider anything in the requested information to be particularly private or personal and that [sic] this substantially weakens the weight of interest in nondisclosure…We accept that Mr Hammond has objected to the disclosure, which in itself carries some weight as representing his interests. However, asides from an expectation of a general principle of non-disclosure of MP correspondence, we have not been given any reason for this. We have been given very little from the Commissioner to substantiate why Members of Parliament would have an expectation that all their correspondence in relation to official work remain confidential

and balanced against these were the public interests in disclosure, including

no authority had been given for the statement [in the ICO’s decision notice] that MPs expect that all correspondence to remain confidential…[;]…withholding of the requested information was not compatible with the principles of accountability and openness, whereby MPs should subject themselves to public scrutiny, and only withhold information when the wider public interest requires it…[;]…the particular circumstances of this case [concerning parking arrangements in the applicant’s road] made any expectation of confidentiality unreasonable and strongly indicated that disclosure would be fair

The arguments weighed, said the Tribunal, strongly in favour of disclosure.

A further point fell to be considered, however: for processing of personal data to be fair and lawful (per the first data protection principle) there must be met, beyond any general considerations, a condition in Schedule Two DPA. The relevant one, condition 6(1) requires that

The processing is necessary for the purposes of legitimate interests pursued by the data controller or by the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed, except where the processing is unwarranted in any particular case by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject

It has to be noted that “necessary” here in the DPA imports a human rights proportionality test and it “is not synonymous with ‘indispensable’…[but] it implies the existence of a ‘pressing social need'” (The Sunday Times v United Kingdom (1979) 2 EHRR 245). The Tribunal, in what effectively was a reiteration of the arguments about general “fairness”, accepted that the condition would be met in this case, citing the applicant’s arguments, which included the fact that

disclosure is necessary to meet the public interest in making public what Mr Hammond has said to the Council on the subject of parking in Wimbledon Village, and that as an elected MP, accountable to his constituents, disclosure of such correspondence cannot constitute unwarranted prejudice to his interests.

With the exception of certain names within the requested information, the Tribunal ordered disclosure.  Assessing “fairness” now, following Mr Justice Cranston, and not following me, clearly does involve balancing the interests of the data subject against the public interest in disclosure.

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Making an FOI request to oneself…

Can the executive of a local authority make an FOI request to itself?

The Brighouse Echo reveals that Stephen Baines (no relation, of course), the Leader of Calderdale Council, resorted to submitting a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in exasperation, after apparently failing to get answers from officers at the Council

I asked officers on November 10 if there was there was any truth in these allegations [about officers ignoring warnings about the legality of a parking scheme], and I hadn’t received a reply, and last Friday I’d had enough – I finally lost it and put in a Freedom of Information request. It’s highly probable that I’m the first council leader to have done this, but I was just getting so frustrated.

But did he need to make an FOI request? In fact, could he even make an FOI request?

I would say that it is strongly arguable that in a council operating executive arrangements – as Calderdale does – under part 9C(3) of the Local Government Act 2000 (LGA 2000), whereby a Leader with a Leader-appointed Cabinet constitute the executive, the executive are deemed generally to be in control of information relating to the council’s functions. So in general terms, the Leader and Cabinet are “the Council”. Section 9D(3) of LGA 2000 provides that “any function of the local authority which is not specified in regulations…is to be the responsibility of an executive of the authority under executive arrangements” (the regulations in question are The Local Authorities (Functions and Responsibilities) (England) Regulations 2000 (as amended). Put another way, the executive are the ones who should take any decision on access to documents, rather than officers (other than officers who have had that decision delegated to them). The exceptions to this general principle would be where the documents relate to functions which are not the responsibility of the executive. Effectively, the executive will be the possessors/controllers of all council information for which the executive has the functional responsibility.

I feel bolstered in this suggestion by Part 5 of The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012. This gives “Additional rights of [access of] members of the local authority and of members of overview and scrutiny committees” and sections 16 and 17 talk in terms of the right of a member, or a member of an overview and scrutiny committee, to inspect certain documents which are “in the possession or under the control of the executive of a local authority”. No interpretative guide is given to what “in the possession or under the control of the executive of a local authority” means, but it is clear that there must be a category of documents which are “in the possession or under the control of the executive of a local authority”. That being the case, one might ask “which documents are not ‘in the possession or under the control of the executive of a local authority’?” To which I am tempted to answer “those which do not relate to the functions for which the executive has responsibility”.

So, if it is, for instance, a function of a local authority to provide library services (section 7 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964).  This function is the responsibility of the executive (because regulations do not specify otherwise). Delivery of the function will normally be by delegation to officers, but I cannot see how those officers, or others, could then restrict a member of the executive from seeing a document relating to the exercise of executive functions. And if, as I understand is the case, civil enforcement of parking contraventions is also an executive functions (surely delegated to officers) one wonders also if officers can restrict a Leader from seeing a document relating to the exercise of that specific function.

So, my argument goes, a leader of a council cannot make an FOI request to the council for information about the exercise of an executive functions, because in that regard he is the council. Comments welcomed!

And n.b. I have not even begun to consider where a councillor’s, or a leader’s, common law right to know fits in to this…

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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The wrong test for anonymisation?

In February this year I asked the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to investigate reports that Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) data had apparently been sold to an actuarial society by the NHS Information Centre (NHSIC), the predecessor to the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC). Specifically I requested, as a data subject can under s42 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), that the ICO assess whether it was likely or not that the processing of my personal data by NHSIC and others had been in compliance with the DPA.

Nine months later, I was still awaiting the outcome. But a clue to how the assessment would turn out was contained in the text of Sir Nick Partridge’s six month review of various data releases by NHSIC (his original report in June seemed to me to point to multiple potential DPA contraventions). In the review document he says

Six investigations have been separately instigated by the HSCIC or Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)and shared with both parties as these focussed on whether individuals were at risk of being identified. In the cases it has investigated, the ICO has upheld the HSCIC approach and informed us that it has “seen no evidence to suggest that re-identification has occurred or is reasonably likely to occur.”
And sure enough, after chasing the ICO for the outcome of my nine-month wait, I received this (in oddly formatted text, which rather whiffed of a lot of cutting-and-pasting)
Following the recent issue regarding HSCIC, PA Consulting, and Google we investigated the issue of whether HES data could be considered personal data. This detailed work involved contacting HSCIC, PA Consulting, and Google and included the analysis of the processes for the extraction and disclosure of HES data both generally and in that case in particular. We concluded that we did not consider that the HES dataset constitutes personal data.Furthermore we also investigated whether this information had been linked to other data to produce “personal data” which was subject to the provisions of the Act. We have no evidence that there has been any re-identification either on the part of PA Consulting or Google. We also noted that HSCIC have stated that the HES dataset does not include individual level patient data even at a pseudonymised level. Our view is that the data extracted and provided to PA Consulting did not identify any individuals and there was no reasonable likelihood that re-identification would be possible.
I have added the emphasis to the words “reasonable likelihood” above. They appear in similar terms in the Partridge Review, and they struck me as rather odd. An awful lot of analysis has taken and continues to take place on the subject of when can personal data be “rendered fully anonymous in the sense that it is information from which the data subject is no longer identifiable” (Lord Hope’s dicta in Common Services Agency v Scottish Information Commissioner [2008] UKHL 47). Some of that analysis has been academic, some takes the form of “soft law” guidance, for instance Opinion 05/2014 of the Article 29 Working Party, and the ICO Anonymisation Code of Practice. The former draws on the Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC, and notes that

Recital 26 signifies that to anonymise any data, the data must be stripped of sufficient elements such that the data subject can no longer be identified. More precisely, that data must be processed in such a way that it can no longer be used to identify a natural person by using “all the means likely reasonably to be used”

Anonymisation has also been subject to judicial analysis, notably in the Common Services Agency case, but, even more key, in the judgment of Mr Justice Cranston in Department of Health v Information Commissioner ([2011] EWHC 1430). The latter case, involving the question of disclosure of late-term abortion statistics, is by no means an easy judgment to parse (ironically so, given that it makes roughly the same observation of the Common Services Agency case). The judge held that the First-tier Tribunal had been wrong to say that the statistics in question were personal data, but that it had on the evidence been entitled to say that “the possibility of identification by a third party from these statistics was extremely remote”. The fact that the possibility of identification by a third party was extremely remote meant that “the requested statistics were fully anonymised” (¶55). I draw from this that for personal data to be anonymised in statistical format the possibility of identification of individuals by a third party must be extremely remote. The ICO’s Anonymisation Code, however, says of the case:

The High Court in the Department of Health case above stated that the risk of identification must be greater than remote and reasonably likely for information to be classed as personal data under the DPA [emphasis added]

But this seems to me to be an impermissible description of the case – the High Court did not state what the ICO says it stated – the phrases “greater than remote” and “reasonably likely” do not appear in the judgment. And that phrase “reasonably likely” is one that, as I say, makes it way into the Partridge Review, and the ICO’s assessment of the lawfulness of HES data “sale”.

I being to wonder if the ICO has taken the phrase from recital 26 of the Directive, which talks about the need to consider “all the means likely reasonably to be used” to identify an individual, and transformed it into a position from which, if identification is not reasonably likely, it will accept that data are anonymised. This cannot be right: there is a world of difference between a test which considers whether possibility of identification is “extremely remote” and whether it is “reasonably likely”.

I do not have a specific right to a review of the section 42 assessment decision that the processing of my personal data was likely in compliance with NHSIC’s obligations under the DPA, but I have asked for one. I am aware of course that others complained (après moi, la deluge) notably, in March, FIPR, MedConfidential and Big Brother Watch . I suspect they will also be pursuing this.

In October this year I attended an event at which the ICO’s Iain Bourne spoke. Iain was a key figure in the drawing up of the ICO’s Anonymisation Code, and I took the rather cheeky opportunity to ask about the HES investigations. He said that his initial view was that NHSIC had been performing good anonymisation practice. This reassured me at the time, but now, after considering this question of whether the Anonymisation Code (and the ICO) adopts the wrong test on the risks of identification, I am less reassured. Maybe “reasonably likely that an individual can be identified” is an appropriate test for determining when data is no longer anonymised, and becomes personal data, but it does not seem to me that the authorities support it.

Postscript Back in August of this year I alerted the ICO to the fact that a local authority had published open data sets which enabled individuals to be identified (for instance, social care and housing clients). More than four months later the data is still up (despite the ICO saying they would raise the issue with the council): is this perhaps because the council has argued that the risk of identification is not “reasonably likely”?

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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Filed under anonymisation, care.data, Data Protection, Directive 95/46/EC, Information Commissioner, NHS

Russell Brand and the domestic purposes exemption in the Data Protection Act

Was a now-deleted tweet by Russell Brand, revealing a journalist’s private number, caught by data protection law?

Data protection law applies to anyone who “processes” (which includes “disclosure…by transmission”) “personal data” (data relating to an identifiable living individual) as a “data controller” (the person who determines the purposes for which and the manner in which the processing occurs). Rather dramatically, in strict terms, this means that most individuals actually and regularly process personal data as data controllers. And nearly everyone would be caught by the obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), were it not for the exemption at section 36. This provides that

Personal data processed by an individual only for the purposes of that individual’s personal, family or household affairs (including recreational purposes) are exempt from the data protection principles and the provisions of Parts II and III

Data protection nerds will spot that exemption from the data protection principles and Parts II and III of the DPA is effectively an exemption from whole Act. So in general terms individuals who restrict their processing of personal data to domestic purposes are outwith the DPA’s ambit.

The extent of this exemption in terms of publication of information on the internet is subject to some disagreement. On one side is the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) who say in their guidance that it applies when an individual uses an online forum purely for domestic purposes, and on the other side are the Court of Justice of the European Union (and me) who said in the 2003 Lindqvist case that

The act of referring, on an internet page, to various persons and identifying them by name or by other means, for instance by giving their telephone numberconstitutes ‘the processing of personal data…[and] is not covered by any of the exceptionsin Article 3(2) of Directive 95/46 [section 36 of the DPA transposes Article 3(2) into domestic law]

Nonetheless, it is clear that publishing personal data on the internet for reasons not purely domestic constitutes an act of processing to which the DPA applies (let us assume that the act of publishing was a deliberate one, determined by the publisher). So when the comedian Russell Brand today decided to tweet a picture of a journalist’s business card, with an arrow pointing towards the journalist’s mobile phone number (which was not, for what it’s worth, already in the public domain – I checked with a Google search) he was processing that journalist’s personal data (note that data relating to an individual’s business life is still their personal data). Can he avail himself of the DPA domestic purposes exemption? No, says the CJEU, of course, following Lindqvist. But no, also, would surely say the ICO: this act by Brand was not purely domestic. Brand has 8.7 million twitter followers – I have no doubt that some will have taken the tweet as an invitation to call the journalist. It is quite possible that some of those calls will be offensive, or abusive, or even threatening.

Whilst I have been drafting this blog post Brand has deleted the tweet: that is to his credit. But of course, when you have so many millions of followers, the damage is already done – the picture is saved to hard drives, is mirrored by other sites, is emailed around. And, I am sure, the journalist will have to change his number, and maybe not much harm will have been caused, but the tweet was nasty, and unfair (although I have no doubt Brand was provoked in some way). If it was unfair (and lacking a legal basis for the publication) it was in contravention of the first data protection principle which requires that personal data be processed fairly and lawfully and with an appropriate legitimating condition. And because – as I submit –  Brand cannot plead the domestic purposes exemption, it was in contravention of the DPA. However, whether the journalist will take any private action, and whether the ICO will take any enforcement action, I doubt.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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