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UK government 'bracing' for private email, text messaging FoI requests

If you're a Freedom of Information request hound, the UK's data protection agency has ruled that private emails of government ministers are covered under the law.

Remember how embarrassed the U.S. government was when Wikileaks released 250,000 diplomatic cables?

The UK government is reportedly "bracing itself", as it was ruled this week that Freedom of Information laws could be invoked to access the private emails of government officials, politicians, and public sector workers.

It was discovered that the UK government's Department for Education were using private email accounts to allegedly circumvent Freedom of Information laws to prevent disclosure of certain facts and figures.

The UK's data protection agency, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), ruled that private emails of government members were within the scope of the law.

But some are worrying that even scraps of paper lying around the office, text messages and Post-it notes are as well.

(Source: Flickr)

In a ruling on Thursday, the ICO chief Christopher Graham said: "It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to official business. This has always been the case -– the act covers all recorded information in any form."

This key clarification made is reportedly worrying officials at Downing Street. The UK's Cabinet Office has previously issued guidance to say that private emails were not under the scope of such laws.

The ICO thinks differently, however. The Freedom of Information requests apply to the person, rather than the email account they are using.

Speaking to the Guardian, one source said: "Everyone is s**ting bricks at the implications. It looks as if they are going to say Post-it notes are disclosable. There is going to be material on the budget, Libyan strategy, everything".

Highlighting the incident earlier this year over the alleged 'cover-up', by attempting to prevent the disclosure of such information in the UK's Department for Education, Graham included guidance to provide "clarification" on the matter.

Graham also waned that the deleting or concealing of information with the intention of preventing its disclosure "is a criminal offence".

But Freedom of Information requests can be denied on the grounds of national security. Some government departments are exempt under these laws to prevent the disclosure of classified or secret material to the public.

Other exemptions include the "formulation of government policy", and the "prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs", giving government the right to block. The ICO would at this point intervene to determine whether the content was in the public interest.

Those expecting to dive into the minutia of party politics may be disappointed, however. Freedom of Information requests only apply to public sector organisations, and not party-political content.

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