PUBLICLY-FUNDED institutions have proved themselves to be pretty open if you ask them: Have you been spying on your employees’ emails?
The BBC fessed up straightaway when (somebody else) asked under the Freedom of Information Act for the details. Thirty staff had their inboxes monitored, including four who were suspected of leaking information.
So, I thought I’d ask some of our local institutions whether they had been doing the same and there had been similar investigations.
University College London had no problem handing the information over. Most of the requests for access to private staff inboxes were explained as needing to retrieve information for people trying to finish coursework, although they were used in investigations into a complaint of abusive emails and a claim somebody was overusing a printer too.
Islington Council also got back with answer:
The council has not carried out any ‘ongoing monitoring’ of staff email in this period (ie, monitoring live email correspondence). The council has, however, authorised two requests to investigate a staff member’s historical email since 1 January 2012.
Case One: This was an investigation to ensure that the appropriate security technology was used when sending sensitive data out of the council.
Case Two: This was part of an Internal Audit investigation into a whistle-blowing allegation.
Just back today, Camden Council also responded:
Camden Corporate IT does not monitor staff email accounts. We will respond to Audit or HR requests to locate specific email information, requiring us to access a staff mailbox as a one off to recover data.
But what about Barnet Council, a borough where everything always seems to be under the microscope, where councillors are filmed from the public gallery and where bloggers constantly rage with fury?
Despite all of the others answering the question under FoI, Barnet took a different approach and brought out the lawyers to say NO. We’re not telling you. In the letter they sent back to me, its FoI team say:
We have processed this request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
Under section 17(4) and section30 (3) we neither confirm nor deny whether the information you have requested exists or is held by us.
Why is against the public interest to release the info? Barnet kindly explains in its response letter:
Factors in favour of maintaining the neither confirm nor deny response
Knowledge of whether or not, and if so how many cases were involved would of itself potentially cause damage to the council’s array of tools and techniques available for investigation into potential criminal offences.
Now, some might think it a teeny-tiny bit odd to go to the trouble of finding legal excuses not to provide the information and respond with, you might say, a heavy hand in comparison to the way two other local public bodies and a university – plus the BBC – approached the question if there had been no monitoring of staff emails at all.
But I’d hate to speculate.