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back to article How GCHQ keeps tabs on FOI requestors

Following an FOI request instigated by yours truly, it has emerged that GCHQ are keeping tabs on FOI requestors. Even those requestors who have asked public authorities for a copy of GCHQ’s widely distributed, declassified, IT security documentation... The circumstances of my request illustrates why the FOIA exemption (Section …

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Unhappy

When I was at school

I live in a town some may consider to have a large terrorism potential.

When I was at school ... just after the FOI was introduced, I asked the local council for information relating to schools plans if there was ever a terrorist attack in the local area.

Two days later, and with no warning, a policeman turned up at my door and asked my mother if I was a terrorist. I'm assuming she told them I wasn't, as I never heard anything further.

I never got my FOI request fulfilled. :(

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Black Helicopters

"A worrying conclusion"?

"The mantra appears to be “if it can be kept secret, it will be kept secret”.

Worrying maybe, but not anything that isn't common knowledge.

Both the military and the civil service are festering top-to-bottom with a "need-to-know" culture and always have been - with themselves of course being the arbiters of "need" in this context. A few new-age hippy politicians wittering on about "FOI" populist transparency nonsense to get elected isn't going to change that in the slightest.

FOI was designed to be useless - that leaves us with the likes of Wikileaks. Great eh?

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Black Helicopters

Knowledge is power in both politics and the civil service

Knowledge is power in the civil service. They want to keep things secret from other bureaucrats from their own country, as well as the press, and general public.

What better way to shoot down the bright idea of a young upstart than, "You don't know the full facts."

Even if it is information that an enemy must know, like attacks we've made or casualties they've suffered, they will keep it secret.

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WTF?

So Freedom Of Information requestors are watched by our spies?! ... why?

If its freely available then why spy on who wants to know? ... Could it be that by knowing what our government is really getting up to, then allows the requestor to point out what our government is doing wrong! ... So the government is using spying resources againt the entire population that our leaders say they represent!

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Anonymous Coward

now if you could say that in 20 seconds

Then most of the muppets who think criminalising Assange is a good idea might get a clue...sadly most people are too stupid to realise that the wikileaks situation is not going away and is due to this kind of reduction in our oversite of the state.

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Complexity has a price

Simple rules are cheaper to implement thus "if it says GCHQ on it - its a secret" is quite tempting from the point of view of keeping the process simple. Also, simple processes are more resilient. Thus the temptation is "if in doubt - apply the primary rule"

Of course, anyone who has dealt with information and operating systems will also tell you that simple systems are also inflexible and suffer from the workaround problem which is one of the biggest security threats in any system - undocumented exception procedures.

As for democratic accountability - that seems to be a long way down the priority list.

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Happy

The Black Light will Light Up on the Black Background

This is not new.

Many moons ago, as an RCO I was asked by the Commanding Officer of a training facility to find out why his adj was having a fight with the local Rifle and Pistol club, over non-compliance with the range regulations. (the CO knew the club sec was a sensible chap who translated safety manuals for H&K, and his adj lacked common sense)

I spoke with the club sec, he showed me a letter, that said they where failing to comply para X of PAM21. When the club wrote back, the Adj refused to tell them what was in that para, as PAM21 (Ground Range Safety Regs) was a restricted document. (i.e. we will take disiplinary action for you failing to comply with the rules we will not tell you about)

The section in question, required them to update the military range log saying what and how much of it, they had fired down the range. This is so that we know when to do maintenance work.

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Anonymous Coward

As you say, lacked common

because all the adjutant had to do was tell them what they had to do to comply with the regs.

How did it pan out? "Interview without coffee" for the adjutant?

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Happy

Applied Common

Pulled out my copy of PAM21, checked the reg, told the club sec (who probably had a higher security clearance than the Adj anyway, due to other work he did for the MoD), as safety dictated that they needed to know what to do.

The club had kept it's own records, but hadn't updated the log on the range, as it was a military document. After 5 minutes of communication, problem resolved, logs updated, informed CO of resolution, and how the adj was communicating (or lack there of)

Surprisingly, that particular Adj always hated me afterwards, but as a reservist, there were very few ways he could cause me problems (probably why I got asked rather than one of the Reg SNCOs).

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Coat

I can see it now

In “Review of the collective works of Enid Blyton with a special emphasis on the roles of Big Ears and Noddy”, the author notes that the reason that elephants have Big Ears is that the Toytown Civic Council have a long-standing policy of not negotiating with terrorists, pointing out that they were involved in guerilla actions in the Alps during the Punic Wars.

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Anonymous Coward

FOI Laziness

Sounds very much like they are being lazy in their application of the FOI Act. As a current FOI practitioner I can tell you that withholding information that is already publicly available is likely to struggle to be justified under S.23 in any appeal to the Information Commissioner. Unless my memory is faulty, S23 is meant to be about intelligence material or other material passed in-confidence. Routine procedure on how to carry out IT security should not come under this exemption! They can however, refuse to release the document it is aleady publicly available, but then in the spirit of FOI they would have to point you towards a website or library etc that has it.

Final point - FOI Act DOES require you to identify yourself properly by name and contact details as part of any request. I don't know the reasoning behind this, but then responding to an anonymous email without being able to contact the person properly makes it very hard to comply with the Act! Thewhatdotheyknow website seems to be an exception to this rule, although it can legally be applied depending on the username, and a lot of people hate it because it is full of nutters who post aboslutely everything online, including names, phone numbers and trolling comments!

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FAIL

Check the exemptions...

You appear to be confusing section 24 (national security) with section 23. The latter is an absolute exemption, whatever the subject matter, and so it doesn't really matter what the ICO do or don't think about it.

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Anonymous Coward

What next?

1 - FOI request for a copy of details of FOI requesters (hopefully this won't recurse...)

2 - Challenge exemption.

3 - Ask for explanation as to why it is necessary to hold said information (citing DPA).

4 - Report to ICO.

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An article of the most boring magnitude...

...on something that doesn't suprise me at all.

You ask for information on one of the most vital parts of SIS in the country and is surprised to be watched?

Plus listing governmentation like that is just snooze-worthy.

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Silver badge
FAIL

Soooo...

How do they keep tabs on you?

You spent the entire article explaining, in pretty good detail, how they protect documents from FOI that don't necessarily need such protection. While this is all good information, none of it is relevant to the title of the piece.

I want to see an article based on the title I read, not one marginally connected to it at best.

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Silver badge

Dreams

"In short, I think the time has come to urgently revisit how the exemptions in Data Protection Act and FOI Act should apply national security agencies"

Aye, but the national security agencies don't think that the time has come, and they're the ones that the govt will listen to. Keep up the needling, and keep records so you can say "Yar boo, told you so", cos that's all that we can do.

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FAIL

the time has come

The walrus said, to speak of many things....

as long as there's no FOI to request, that is...

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Send them the copy you got with a note saying...

...nana na nana.

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Big Brother

Remember the opening of The Prisoner ?

Everything you EVER! do or say to anyone at anytime and over any Media

"WILL BE USED AGAINST YOU..."

At your Future WATERBOARDING SESSION at a Residence of THIER! Choosing!!!

So keep looking out for the nondescript Vans and Black cars!!!!!!!

Who is running the Country? its not Parliement ! and they aren't doing it for the Public good.

gotta go!... theres a black van pulled up outsi...

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Big Brother

GCHQ = UK Stasi?

"Following an FOI request instigated by yours truly, it has emerged that GCHQ are keeping tabs on FOI requestors. Even those requestors who have asked public authorities for a copy of GCHQ’s widely distributed, declassified, IT security documentation..."

Shouldn't this be the stuff of paranoid delusions?

So, after banging on about civil liberties while in opposition, what's the coalition going to do about this stasi stuff?

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Headmaster

what's the coalition going to do about this stasi stuff?

They'll deal with it after the next election, of course.

This is similar to the Spanish word 'mañana'

- often miss-interrupted as 'tomorrow', when it's more often meant as 'not today'

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Headmaster

What's the coalition going to do?

They'll deal with it after the next election, of course.

This is similar to the Spanish word 'mañana'

- often miss-interrupted as 'tomorrow', when it's more often meant as 'not today'

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There is only one inference

GCHQ have an incomplete database of every individual who could possibly be a security risk.

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Anonymous Coward

Who Else Do GCHQ Keep Tabs On?

Commentators on this website probably!

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Black Helicopters

Ask Julian

Once his version of the passion play is over, and he once again walks amongst us, he will be able to tell you. I don't really think much of the guy, but I hate that my country is on the side of the Romans in this....

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Big Brother

“Refer any FOIA queries to GCHQ on 01242...”

Incredible how you've made the link from the above sentence to the idea that Cheltenham keep tabs on FOI requestors!

Deep breaths... tin-foil hats off... it is just a FOI practitioner advice line.

If you'd ever had cause to refer an FOI request to the phone or email contact given, you'd quickly discover that GCHQ has no interest in the requestor details. They aren't even interested in what the request was - all they do is repeat the mantra that their documents are exempt, and a section 23 exemption must be applied to refuse release.

Yes, you are right that the refusal is a blanket policy, and IS6 is a mundane document, but Parliament completely exempted GCHQ and the other security services from FOI, so it's hardly surprising that GCHQ refuse to come to the party at all.

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Black Helicopters

there's been a long historic tradition in uk spookland

to follow people who write accurate letters to the local evening newspaper complaining about something reasonable. Scene in Special Branch circa1980 "Carruthers, open a terrirzm file on Mrs Murrell"?

I presume this is now modernized to include the list of IPs of people who write 'subversive' accurate and resonable comments to TheRegister!

personally I'm all in favor of CSOC/CESG/GCHQ and wish the parking problem at Benhall could be solved to everyone's satisfaction

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Bronze badge
Stop

Hang on

Did I miss something, but the author didn't actually say what it was GCHQ did, if all they asked him for was his contact details, then what's the problem, lots of organisations like to know to whom they are sending information.

And what's wrong with GCHQ checking up a little, after all there might just be a terrorist dumb enough to give valid contact details.

Sorry but I really don't see the point of this story, Ok, there are still classified documents around that probably shouldn't be, but what do you expect the process to be for releasing a document, FOI request for marked document, check marking, no way, check person, end process, you really don't expect the people who process FOIs to go much further than that do you, they can't read the document first, just to see if it's marked correctly.

And take a step back here, and look at the process you would expect a national security organisation to go through when asked for information, to protect you, and them.

The FOI is not a mandatory declassification process.

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FAIL

@ Is it me?

>> The FOI is not a mandatory declassification process.

Err, so you didn't actually read the article then ?

The argument was that the document requested was NOT CLASSIFIED - it was explicitly marked as "NOT PROTECTIVELY MARKED", which means unclassified.

But, because it's been produced by GCHQ, as the law stands, it automatically is exempt from FOI requests. Not because it is or might be classified (which would be grounds for refusing the request), but only because if it's author.

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WTF?

I must have missed the point.

So:

1) You can't FoI the security services (we knew that).

2) If you give the security services your name, they'll probably put it in a little black book somewhere (we knew that too).

What's to stop you sending your FoI for a widely circulated document to someone who isn't the security services anyway?

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Information accessible to applicant by other means

You go to great pains to emphasise how harmless the information was by saying that it was very widely available. In doing so you have undermined your point that your request should have been processed. That in itself is an exception under s 21 of the Freedom of Information Act.

Sub-section (1) states that: "Information which is reasonably accessible to the applicant otherwise than under section 1 is exempt information."

This exemption exists to promote efficiency, as there is no need to provide information under an FOI if it is already freely available. Indeed to do so would waste time and resources.

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