The Home Office have sent back a deeply disappointing response to our Freedom of Information request about the Intercept Modernisation Programme. The response reveals almost nothing about alleged proposals to build a giant database of the communications traffic data of all UK citizens, even though the Home Office admit the need for an informed public debate on the scheme.
Last August, and following reports of a radical new surveillance plan afoot at the Home Office, ORG submitted a Freedom of Information request in a bid to shed some light on the Intercept Modernisation Programme (IMP).
Back then, the fear was that the Communications Data Bill - slated to appear in last week's Queen's speech - would be designed to give legislative cover for a project to centralise data about the communications activity of every UK citizen into a giant database, and bring that database under the authority of a government agency.
In their response, the Home Office accept the value there would be in disclosing details of the scheme:
"The issues surrounding IMP are of significant public interest. There is a large amount of speculation about the options which may be under consideration with little firm information in the public domain. Increased openness with regard to what options the programme is considering and with whom discussion have or have not been held would increase understanding and transparency in this area and inform the public debate."
Unfortunately they find that, despite this, they are exempted by provisions in the Freedom of Information Act from telling us almost anything about the IMP. This outcome was predictable enough. What we failed to predict when we made the request, however, was the range of grounds upon which the Home Office would refuse it.
The request for details of meetings between the Home Office and communications service providers to discuss the IMP was refused on grounds that it related to:
- Information relating to security bodies
- National security
- Law enforcement
- Formulation of government policy
- Prejudice to commercial interests
Looks like ORG scored the FOI equivalent a hat trick. Other parts of the request were denied on grounds that meeting it would exceed the £600 limit. In some parts, the Home Office also refused to answer the request on the grounds that they had no idea what we were talking about. For example:
"In your e-mail you ask for the agenda and minutes of all meetings of the Intelligence and Security Liaison Group (and prior and subsequent re-naming of this entity). I regret to inform you that the Home Office is not aware of the existence of this group or of a similarly named group; or indeed of previously titled entity of that name. As such the Home Office does not hold the information you request, but if you could provide us with more specific details this may help us to identify the group that you are referring to."
This part of the response is especially interesting in light of the fact that one of the two documents they did release (both agendas of meetings of the Government Industry Forum, held in 2006 and 2007) details a speaker from the "Intelligence and Security Liaison Unit". The intuitive and categorical differences between a "Unit" and a "Group" are clearly only obvious to career civil servants. We now realise we should have asked for a group that reported to that unit, and will be amending any future FOI requests accordingly. Another example:
"Your other enquiries appear to relate to the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) and in responding to this request I am assuming that you are again referring to the IMP when you ask for the draft or other plans for the technical architecture of the system.
"There are a multitude of systems employed in this Programme; unfortunately I am therefore unable to answer this request without further clarity as to which ‘system’ you refer to."
We'll be working out how best to respond to this over the coming weeks. In the meantime, here's the full text of the response, as well as the two documents that were released following our request (2006 Agenda - page 1 | page 2; 2007 Agenda - page 1 | page 2).
Although the Communications Data Bill was removed from last week's Queen's Speech, and Jacqui Smith has promised a public consultation on the scheme in the New Year, we feel there's still a value in finding out how far the Home Office have thought through these plans already, who they're talking to, and who among expert stakeholders are privately raising concerns. Watch this space.