Tag Archives: Scottish Information Commissioner

Personal Data and FOI: to anonymise or not to anonymise

I recently wrote a blog post covering the release of third party personal data under freedom of information laws in both Scotland and the rest of the UK. Requests which seek the release of third party personal data, or where information within the scope of a FOI request constitutes the personal data of a third party, are the most common examples of where freedom of information and data protection overlap; however, they are not the only examples.

On Friday of last week, the Herald contained a piece covering calls which had been made to anonymise FOI requests which are sent to government advisers. These calls follow on from some high profile disagreements between the Scottish Government and journalists. The allegations levelled against the Scottish Government is that ministers and their advisers are having undue influence over what information is and is not released under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002; in particular where the request comes from a journalist. The Scottish Information Commissioner is currently carrying out an “intervention” which is looking at this matter alongside one which has a wider remit in relation to the Scottish Government’s handling of FOI requests. It is understood that the Commissioner’s Office will report its findings of these interventions in the next month or so.

These wider issues are not, however, the focus of this blog post. Rather, the focus of this blog post relates to the call to anonymise FOI requests in this way and whether this is a practice that public authorities ought to be following in any event.

The General Data Protection Regulation and the Data protection Act 2018 now govern how organisations, such as public authorities, process personal data. Reducing the data protection framework down to its most basic requirement, data controllers should not be processing the personal data of a data subject unless they have a lawful basis to do so.

When a public authority circulates a request for information, or a proposed response to a request for information, that is not stripped of the personal data of the requester then that would amount to the processing of personal data of which the requester is the data subject. What is the lawful basis of processing in Article 6 of the GDPR which enables the public authority to process the requester’s personal data in that way?  Clearly there is a need for the requester’s personal data to be processed in order to enable the response to be issued to the requester and there will no doubt be some central record which records who has made FOI requests, what the request was for and what the outcome of the request was – if only to enable the authority to respond to an internal review, appeal to the Commissioner or appeal to the tribunal/courts.

The Authority cannot possibly have the consent of the data subject to process their personal data by circulating it around the authority. Consent cannot be inferred in the way that would be necessary in order to rely upon consent. There’s no contract with the data subject which would require the processing of their personal data in this way.

Answering a FOI request is a legal obligation on behalf of the public authority, but is it necessary to provide the name of the requester to the department(s) who need to search for the information or to an official or adviser who is having in put into the response? Probably not, especially when set against the ‘applicant blind’ way in which FOI requests are supposed to be dealt with. Is it necessary in order to protect the vital interests of the data subject or of another natural person? I’d have thought it unlikely. Again, it’s unlikely to be necessary for the performance of a task carried out in the public interest or in the exercise of official authority vested in the controller. Finally, it’s unlikely that it would be necessary for the purposes of the legitimate interests pursued by the controller or by a third party.

In short, it’s unlikely that it is necessary for those searching for the information or considering the proposed response to know who the requester is. There are, of course, situations where a different course might be required. For example, if considering refusing the request on the grounds that it is vexatious under section 14 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 or section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000; it will often be necessary to speak with other areas of the organisation, especially persons responsible for handling complaints. In such circumstances it would be necessary for those being consulted to know the identity of the requester, otherwise the evidence required in order to justify reliance upon the vexatious provisions could not be gathered.

In normal circumstances, public authorities should probably be removing personal data such as a requester’s name, place of work and job title (where included) from a request before sending it out to those who need to perform searches for information or those who, in accordance with the authority’s internal procedures, need to approve responses before they’re issued. Only where the identity of the requester is directly relevant to the response, such as where consideration is being given to refusing the request on the grounds that it is vexatious, should the identity of the requester be disclosed otherwise it may amount to a breach of data protection law.

It may be relevant at this juncture to look, briefly, at the applicant blind requirement of freedom of information law. The applicant blind requirement is not specifically provided for within the relevant legislation; however, it has been understood for some considerable time that requests ought to be dealt with in a way that means that they are applicant blind.  The applicant blind requirement is often largely over-stated.  There are clearly situations where the applicant’s identity will be relevant; for example is it a request for that person’s own personal data or is it a vexatious/repeated request or are you aware of any disability which may mean that you need to make reasonable adjustments in terms of the Equality Act 2010?  If public authorities applied the applicant blind requirement absolutely and slavishly, it would cause difficulties in those situations and also in others.

The purpose of the applicant blind test is to ensure that, other than where the exemption necessitates it, the requester’s identity does not form part of the decision in whether to apply an exemption or in the application of the public interest balancing test. Anonymising FOI requests when they go out to the wider organisation or to selected individuals for comment/approval assists to ensure that the applicant blind aspect of the FOI regime is also complied with.

Alistair Sloan

If you require advice and assistance in connection with a freedom of information or data protection matter then contact Alistair Sloan on 0141 229 0880. Alternatively you can send Alistair and E-mail.

Information Law Review of 2017

2018 is now upon us and this is a big year in the field of Information Law, the General Data Protection Regulation will at last become applicable in the United Kingdom.  If you are a data controller or a data processor, your preparations for the GDPR should be well under way; however, if you have not yet started to prepare for these regulations then it is not yet too late.  The lesser known brother of the GDPR also kicks in this year, the Law Enforcement Directive, which governs the processing of personal data by law enforcement agencies.

However, before I get stuck into what is coming this year in the field of Information law, I want to take a moment to look back at some of the things that happened in 2017.  At the tail end of 2017 the High Court in England issued its anticipated judgment in the case of Various Claimants v WM Morrisons Supermarket PLC  [2017] EWHC 3113 (QB)This represented a significant development in the data protection field and opens up a much wider range of circumstances in which data subjects can sue a data controller under Section 13 of the Data Protection Act 1998.

In October 2017, the Irish High Court made a reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union at the request of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner seeking a preliminary ruling on “Privacy Shield”, the successor to the Safe Harbour rules which had previously been held to be unlawful by the European Court.

In September 2017, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights issued a decision concerning the application of the right to a private and family life contained in Article 8 of the European Court of Human Rights to the monitoring of a person’s communications by their employer.

Also in September 2017, the UK Government published its Data Protection Bill which will replace the Data Protection Act 1998, extends GDPR standards to areas not within the competence of the European Union and implements the Law Enforcement Directive, among other things.

Now looking ahead to 2018, it is possible that we might see a decision from the English Court of Appeal in the Morrisons case referred to above, the judge having granted permission to Morrisons to appeal his findings in relation to vicarious liability.  We may also see claims for compensation being made based upon the Morrisons decision.

In Scotland, we will be expecting to see some more progress made by the Scottish Parliament in its consideration of the Children and Young People (Information Sharing) (Scotland) Bill.  I provided written evidence to the Education and Skills Committee on this Bill last year.  The Committee has had some difficulty in completing its Stage 1 consideration of the Bill and the previous deadline of 22 November 2017 for completion of Stage 1 was removed by the Scottish Parliament.

It is also possible that we will see the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit and Post-Legislative scrutiny Committee begin to undertake a post-legislative inquiry into the operation of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (or announce that such an inquiry will take place in due course).  If such an inquiry does take place, it will be the first time that there will have been a complete review of the Scottish FOI Act and how it is operating.

Staying on the subject of Freedom of Information in Scotland, we are likely to see the outcome of the Scottish Information Commissioner’s formal intervention in respect of the Scottish Government’s compliance with the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.  We are also likley to see an Order being made under Section 5 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 designating Registered Social Landlords as scottish public authorities with effect from 1st April 2019.

By the end of 2018 we should also hopefully have a much better idea as to what the UK’s relationship with the European Union will be after it leaves, and in particular what impact this will have on data protection and privacy law in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

There will no doubt be a raft of new court decisions in relation to both Privacy/Data Protection and Freedom of Information over the course of the next 12 months and I will attempt to address the most important and unusual decisions here on the Information Law Blog from Inksters Solicitors.

Alistair Sloan

If you would like advice or assistance with Privacy and Data Protection matters (including GDPR preparation) or with UK and Scottish Freedom of Information requests contact Alistair Sloan on 0345 450 0123 or you can E-mail him.

FOISA Vexatious decision notice appealed to Court of Session

Section 14 in both the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”) and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (“FOISA”) enable an authority not to comply with a request for information that is vexatious.  What is meant by vexatious in Section 14 of FOIA has been the subject of litigation all the way to the Court of Appeal and the leading authority is Dransfield and another v The Information Commissioner and others [2015] EWCA Civ 454; [2015] 1 WLR 5316.  However, there has not yet been any litigation in Scotland on the meaning of vexatious within Section 14 of FOISA; the Scottish Information Commissioner’s guidance [pdf] on the subject appears to draw heavily on the Dransfield decision.

Those who make a point of reading the Scottish Information Commissioner’s regular round-ups of decisions will note that the most recent one informs us of an appeal to the Court of Session against a decision of the Scottish Information Commissioner which upheld the authority’s use of Section 14.  If the appeal proceeds, it will be the first time that the Scottish courts will have considered Section 14 of FOISA.

It will be interesting to see whether the Court of Session adopts the Dransfield position, or whether it takes a different approach to vexatious requests in Scotland.  If the Court of Session does publish an Opinion, we will of course cover it on this blog.

Alistair Sloan

We are able to provide advice and assistance in connection with a range of Freedom of Information matters, including appeals against decisions of both the Scottish and UK Information Commissioners.  If you would like to do discuss a Freedom of Information, or any other Information Law, matter with us then you can contact Alistair Sloan on 0345 450 0123.  Alternatively, you can send him an E-mail.

FOI in Scotland in 2016/17: The Scottish Information Commissioner’s Annual Report

Margaret Keyes, Acting Scottish Information Commissioner chose yesterday, International Right to Know Day, to launch her office’s annual report [pdf] for the 2016/17 year.  The report finds that the public’s awareness of the right to ask and obtain information from public bodies is high, at 85%.

The Scottish Information Commissioner is a statutory office holder charged with enforcing the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 and the INSPIRE (Scotland) Regulations 2009.  The Commissioner’s office, amongst other things, investigates complaints made by individuals and organisations who have exercised their rights under these various pieces of legislation, but who are dissatisfied with how the Scottish public authority has handled their request.

In 2016/17 the Commissioner received a total of 425 appeals and issued a total of 252 formal, legally enforceable, decision notices.  Most of the appeals received related to requests made under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 with the remainder relating to requests which fell to be dealt with under the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004.  The Commissioner received no appeals under the INSPIRE (Scotland) Regulations 2009 (although these Regulations are much more specialised and are probably only really of interest/relevance to a limited number of people).

There lies a right to appeal against formal notices issued by the Commissioner, including a formal decision notices, to the Court of Session.  A very small number of appeals were made to the Court of Session during the 2016/17 year, according to the Commissioner’s report (some of which Inksters were instructed in by the Appellant).

The Commissioner has a range of enforcement tools which can be deployed.  One of those is to issue an ‘enforcement notice’ which requires a Scottish public authority to take specified steps to comply with the legislation.  In 2016/17, the Commissioner issued four enforcement notices (which represented the first enforcement notices ever issued by the Commissioner).

Where the Commissioner reasonably requires information in order to (a) assess whether a Scottish public authority has complied, or is complying, with the legislation; or (b) assess whether a Scottish public authority has complied, or is complying, with the statutory codes of practice issued by the Scottish Ministers, the Commissioner can issue an Information Notice.  In 2016/17, the Commissioner issued 3 such notices.

The Commissioner’s decision notices are legally enforceable and where the Commissioner considers that a Scottish public authority is failing to comply with a decision notice the Commissioner has the power to certify this to the Court of Session.  The Court can ultimately, after making enquiries, deal with a Scottish public authority which has failed to comply with a decision notice as if they were in contempt of Court.  The Commissioner has never made such a certification, but the 2016/17 annual report reveals that the Commissioner came close to doing so during the course of that year.

On the whole it seems to have been a busy year for the Scottish Information Commissioner’s Office; although, the number of appeals received in 2016/17 was lower than in 2015/16.

Alistair Sloan

We are able to provide advice and assistance in connection with a range of Freedom of Information matters, including appeals against decisions of both the Scottish and UK Information Commissioners.  If you would like to do discuss a Freedom of Information, or any other Information Law, matter with us then you can contact Alistair Sloan on 0345 450 0123.  Alternatively, you can send him an E-mail.