Private emails are subject to FOI searches, and it’s a crime intentionally to conceal relevant information.
So, it appears that the Department of Education (DfE) has conceded that business emails sent by private email accounts are subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), thus accepting what the right-thinking world, and, indeed, anyone with a glimmer of common sense knew all along.
Plaudits, or brickbats, according to your position on the merits of FOIA, should go to Christopher Cook of the Financial Times, who has pursued the Department of Education (DfE) on this with the enthusiasm of a Jack Russell terrier faced with a scurrying rat. Fellow hacks at the Independent had also joined themselves to the proceedings listed (but now withdrawn) in the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights). The DfE had had the balls to launch a challenge to a previous decision by the Information Commissioner (ICO) that the information (held in private email accounts) requested by Chris should be released. The decision notice itself was clear, and difficult to argue with, as is the advice on the subject published by the ICO around the same time. One wondered what possible grounds the DfE had to base a successful appeal on, and the withdrawal of the appeal probably answers that point, although it appears the withdrawal was actually prompted by the imminent publication of Cabinet Office guidance.
Some are now predicting that there will be a deluge of FOI requests specifically targeted at information held in private emails, or text messages, and I think this is probably right. What is not clear is how they will be handled. The ICO’s guidance suggests that, faced with requests for information that could be held in private emails, public authorities should restrict themselves to asking the person to search their account and keeping a record to show that this was asked:
The public authority will then be able to demonstrate, if required, that appropriate searches have been made in relation to a particular request. The Commissioner may need to see this in the event of a…complaint
This suggests that, when investigating a complaint about refusal to disclose information, the ICO will restrict himself merely to satisfying himself that an authority has asked its staff to check emails. Absent any evidence that those staff have not been honest about the contents of those private emails, the ICO will take no further action. The reasons for this are, really, quite obvious: the powers open to a public authority to access private email accounts are limited. Although the Telecommunications (Lawful Business Practice) (Interception of Communications) Regulations 2000 allow an employer to “intercept” an employee’s private emails (if sent using the employer’s systems) to determine whether they are business-related, those powers must be exercised with due regard to the employee’s privacy rights. The interception of private emails in a private email account (sent using the employer’s systems) must be necessary and proportionate. If an employee has told his or employer that their private emails contain no information caught by an FOI request it is doubtful, absent any evidence to the contrary, that a “trawl” of emails without the employee’s consent would be lawful (I’ve written for PDP journals on this subject – subscription needed).
On one view, then, nothing much has changed with the concession by the DfE, although no doubt many new FOI requests will be made as a result. What has changed, perhaps, is the focus on individuals’ personal responsiblity under FOIA. Currently, section 77 creates an offence if a person alters, defaces, blocks, erases, destroys or conceals a record in response to an FOI request. If a trawl of emails on a public authority’s systems is required this will normally fall to IT, or similar, and employees have little say – or, if you like, given the existence of back-up systems – limited opportunity to commit a section 77 offence. Now, if the same employee is asked whether private emails contain specific information, and he or she untruthfully says “no”, criminality – the mens rea – will be relatively easy to make out.
The question is, how would we find out?