UK Government Instituted Automatic Email Deletion Program Right Before Its Freedom Of Information Law Came Into Effect

from the AUTOBURY dept

Loads of politicians continue to skirt the requirements of open records laws by using personal email accounts to handle official business. Others simply implement voluntary/poorly defined data retention policies that ensure nothing of interest will be handed over to the public. Given a short enough retention period, any request can be stonewalled until the autodestruct has rendered responsive files unavailable.

This is what the UK government is doing. Tony Blair, the prime minister behind the implementation of the UK's Freedom of Information laws, has publicly lamented ever inviting the public into the conversation. It now appears they'll still be mostly excluded from any email correspondence. (via slashdot)

Weeks before Tony Blair’s Freedom of Information (FOI) act first came into force, Downing Street adopted a policy of automatically deleting emails more than three months old, resulting in a system described by those who worked under it as ‘dysfunctional’. Campaigners have described the timing of the IT policy as ‘not a coincidence’.
Any emails retained past this point have to be saved by the recipient. The deletion system works so efficiently and thoroughly that some government employees thought they'd been issued faulty devices.
One former permanent secretary told the newspaper that he thought there were problems with his BlackBerry when he noticed his emails kept disappearing.
The public might call this system opacity at its finest. But it's apparently not all that popular with those on the inside, either. It's one thing to be on the outside and attempting to peer in with a stack of FOI requests. It's quite another when government employees often experience email-induced early-onset dementia. The "90 Days or it's Deleted!" policy has been referred to as "extremely frustrating," especially when no one's able to verify what was agreed upon in meetings held only three months ago.

On top of 10 Downing Street's disappearing act, there's a concerted effort by other staffers and lawmakers to keep emails out of the public's hands. Some delete theirs almost immediately after reading. Others avoid discussing anything "interesting" in official emails.

The problem obviously traces back to Blair's hesitant implementation of the law. A promise of new openness was immediately undercut by a deliberate email retention policy change. When the leadership openly regrets and resents new avenues of accountability, the rank-and-file will only be more than happy to follow. In his memoirs, Blair called the FOI law a "weapon" in the hands of "journalists," showing just how deep-seated the government's disdain for openness actually is.

There's not a government on the planet that welcomes the scrutiny of the public. Fortunately, some legislators have recognized this as an unhealthy attitude. The battle over the freedom of information didn't end with FOI laws. It was only the beginning. The UK government -- like ours -- still has plenty of "weapons" of its own to deploy in the interest of opacity. Destruction of "retention" policies, easily-abused exemptions, stonewalling, disingenuous search efforts, exorbitant fulfillment fees -- all of these are the tools the government uses to remain in its natural vampiric state of living off the income of others while recoiling from the sunlight.


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 25 Jun 2015 @ 4:40am

    I admire their restraint

    Honestly it must have been insanely tempting to put off implementing the automatic email deletion program until the very day after the FOI law went into effect, just to make it all the more clear that law or not, they still found the idea that they actually answer to the public to be downright hilarious.

    But no, they put it into place several weeks beforehand in order to pretend that the two had nothing to do with each other, and in the process showing remarkable restraint in only giving the public a single one-finger salute, rather than using both hands as they could have.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    RD, 25 Jun 2015 @ 5:13am

    High/Low court?

    So they (and by "they" I mean all governments everywhere) want to have access to anything we ever said or did at any time going back (at least) several years and then be stored forever, BUT when it comes to their correspondence and electronic data trail, they want to be able to completely and utterly erase it from existence on the spot, right now, no waiting!

    Seriously?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Jun 2015 @ 5:38am

      Re: High/Low court?

      Where is the "Depressing" button because this isn't funny.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 25 Jun 2015 @ 5:53am

      Re: High/Low court?

      That! Because there's no abuse, no terrorism, no corruption and no crime inside the Government!

      On a side note, the expiration period is absurdly short for Government activities considering how slow they move.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 25 Jun 2015 @ 10:49am

        Re: Re: High/Low court?

        I'd love this policy at my job. We move slow enough that I'd never have to do anything on a project because by the time the systemic barriers to starting the project were overcome, all the emails about it would be deleted, resent, and deleted again a few times over.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 25 Jun 2015 @ 12:52pm

      Re: High/Low court?

      ... BUT when it comes to their correspondence and electronic data trail, they want to be able to completely and utterly erase it from existence on the spot, right now, no waiting!

      Are you still convinced it's your gov't? Silly rabbit.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Josh (profile), 25 Jun 2015 @ 6:08am

    Why is it OK

    for a government to delete emails, even if it's an auto delete. If I were to do this, it would be viewed as covering up evidence, conspiracy, and something else.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      RD, 25 Jun 2015 @ 6:28am

      Re: Why is it OK

      If you delete your browser *cache* (which is by default nothing but temp and transitory files) you can be prosecuted for destruction of evidence and whatever the hell else they can hang on you. (I think this is just in the USA now, but don't worry, it will be coming to a government near you soon.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jun 2015 @ 9:24am

    This message will self destruct. A la Inspector gadget.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8g9vL11CRe8

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: I Invented Email
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.