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Freedom of Information request

PI and No-CCTV decided to lodge of Freedom of Information (FOIA) request with the ICO to discover the rationale behind its decision to refuse our complaint against Internet Eyes, requesting all memos, emails and correspondence relating to the matter. This was submitted in mid June. The ICO responded by stalling the application:

I can confirm that we do hold the information you have requested.  However we consider that the exemption at section 36(2) (b) (ii) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 applies to this information.  This allows information to be withheld from a response to a request for information under that Act if the disclosure of the information “would, or would be likely to, inhibit … the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation …”

Thus the regulator responsible for FOIA used a contentious and controversial exemption to stall a request for information about its own activities. While arguing publicly that FOI could not be exempted to save embarrassment the Commissioner’s Office had used it to disguise its own embarrassment.

However on 11th August we received some material relating to our request. Almost thirty percent of the correspondence was blacked out, something we'll be asking questions about in due course, but the exposed content provides a devastating insight into the attitude and modus operandi of the ICO.

In short, the ICO was deeply concerned about possible adverse press coverage from its decision and conspired to bury the story on a busy news day. This effort together with associated aspects raises a number of crucial questions about the ICO’s competence and integrity.

It's understandable at some levels that on 6th June Senior Press Officer Kirsty McCaskill sent an email to Deputy Commissioner David Smith asking

"Can we time the letter arriving with Privacy International with our news release going out? Want to minimise risk they'll go out and do their own statement without our side of the story being ready."

The effect of this strategy is that the complainant receives the judgment on the same day that a crafted media release is distributed by the regulator. Thus there is no opportunity for the complainant to carefully analyse responses to complex judgments in advance of media interview requests.

There's a view that any organisation - even a quasi-judicial organisation - has the right to ensure that its genuinely held beliefs receives a fair hearing. We accept that there's some basis for this view but we believe that it is poor practice for a regulator to play media politics.