Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Fine Art of Colouring In

When you ask for information under FOI, sometimes details have to be held back. What's reasonable, and how should it be done?

On 5 February this year, a requester called Nick Wintour wrote to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, via the What Do They Know website. He wanted to know the cost of the winning tender for a promotional video the service had commissioned, along with a breakdown of the costs and a copy of the tender document.

Their response was provided almost a month late, on 15 April. The video, he was told, cost £11,370 but the details could not be provided for reasons of commercial interest; and he was given, as requested, a copy of the tender document.

It was 50 pages long.

Most of the pages were blacked out - 39 pages in their entirety.

It's quite frustrating to receive a response like this. But is it justified? And how do you do it?

Marker Time

There are two kinds of FOI enquiries which take up a lot of time. One is where an exemption has to be claimed, which requires analysis, argument and careful judgement. That's often hard work, but it's usually interesting.

But there are other enquiries where most of the information is provided, but some needs to be withheld. And that means one thing.

It's chunky black marker time.

Redacting bits of information from a document is laborious and time consuming. It usually involves reading through the paperwork very carefully and obscuring details, usually with a black marker - what my counterparts in the University of Edinburgh used to call 'colouring in'.

It takes ages, after a while the words swim confusingly in front of your eyes, and if you're sitting in a small room, you will find yourself getting high from the marker fumes (some people see this as one of the perks of the job; I couldn't possibly comment).

Getting it right, in these circumstances, is difficult. And yet, it's also essential.

Traps for the unwary

(If you're an FOI requester, sorry about this bit, it's for FOI practitioners and it won't help you - the section you want comes next)

First up, have a big supply of black chunky markers and discard each one the moment it begins to give out: your marking needs to be black, not gray.

Second, don't send the requester a scan of the document: the light from a scanner can often reveal the underlying text. You may end up giving away more than you intended. Photocopy the marked document, and send a scan of the copy.

Thirdly, even blanked out details can be useful. If you're blanking out the names of Professor Hu and Professor Csikszentmihalyi in a document, it won't be too difficult for the requester to figure out who Professor XX is. Try and randomise your blanking.

Fourthly, don't use correction fluid (Tippex, Snopake etc). This can be scraped away to show what's underneath.

Finally, if you want to redact details from an electronic document, do it properly. Don't just put a layer of black boxes on pages of a PDF. Use proper redaction software (such as Adobe Acrobat) and if you have a Word Document with comments turned on, print it to PDF and send this.

What not to redact

Bearing in mind the tediousness of redaction, it's not surprising that FOI officers err on the side of caution - it's easier to blank a whole page than individual words, and there's less chance of missing something. You don't have much time to make decisions, so your process is likely to follow a simple rule: if in doubt, blank it out.

For this reason, if you think the information in your document has been wrongly redacted, don't hesitate to request a review or repeal.

Many organizations prefer to withhold complete documents rather than produce a redacted one, but very often most of the document can be provided with just some withheld. But what can you reasonably expect to be withheld?

The video contract mentioned above is a good example, and it's actually been properly done - each page is marked with the relevant exemption to show why it was withheld. This is good practice - often you get pages blacked out without reasons given.

In the contract, some redactions are very justifiable. It includes details on the personnel, their backgrounds and experience. Unless the company are using an Oscar-winning director, or inexperienced interns, there's no reason for you to have their personal details. It's not important. (Personal data is one of the most redacted items. Since most FOI officers also work in data protection, they're particularly cautious about this. In the case of animal research, withholding a person's name may protect them from injury.)

Secondly, information about the company's pricing is probably correctly withheld: it's specialist information of use to competitors and suppliers.

Not so clear is why the company's methodology is secret: making a video is a fairly straightforward process and there's not a great deal of room for different methods. Besides, the results would be plainly seen in the end product. I think someone's been overcautious here.

One particularly bad example of redaction happened to Irish journalist Gerard Cunningham (@faduda on Twitter). He asked for data on the government's Jobbridge scheme which allows companies to take on unpaid interns in receipt of social welfare benefits. The relevant department replied, but refused to disclose the company ID numbers - they said this would allow someone to log on and access the company data. He didn't mind, but he wanted to be able to match companies to jobs they were offering. He suggested they use a simple algorithm to replace the real number with a new one. They refused, saying they were not required to create new information. But of course this isn't creating information, it's obscuring it, in exactly the way you do with a black marker.

If you get a redacted document in response to an enquiry, it's difficult to avoid the feeling that the small amount of information blacked out is exactly the vital information you need. Sometimes it is - but sometimes even though it isn't, it just stares at you, taunting you. The chances are that it's been correctly withheld. But you should certainly been given reasons for the redaction and you should be prepared to challenge any you feel are not justified.

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