What Really Happens When You FOIA UK Police

Ever wondered why every British police force seems to give you the same answers?

Oct 5 2016, 1:30pm

Photo: Brian A. Jackson/Shutterstock

British authorities have a reputation for keeping incredibly tight-lipped about surveillance, especially when asked to release even basic details of programs or technologies under the Freedom of Information Act.

But a lot more goes on behind the scenes of requests around surveillance topics than one might realise. By requesting the processing notes and communications for FOIA requests, it's possible to gain insight into what really happens when someone asks for information on a controversial subject, and how, in some cases, police forces develop a national strategy to ensure that no information seeps out.

For example, Motherboard has been using the FOIA to dig up details of UK law enforcement's use of "equipment interference", the government's term for hacking. While managing to get some information out of agencies, such as how a few of them will share hacking technologies, many of the requests have been stonewalled.

Read more: The UK's Spy Agency Is Even More FOIA-Proof Than the NSA

Motherboard previously sent over 40 FOIA requests to UK police forces, asking how many investigations had used equipment interference, how much had been spent on these capabilities, what sort of crime equipment interference was used to combat, and other questions concerning the number of warrant applications to use hacking tools. The majority of agencies would neither confirm nor deny that they held the information requested. Many of the forces' responses not only used the same exemptions to withhold any information, but also made very similar, or often completely identical arguments as well.

"The force's future law enforcement capabilities would be affected and this would hinder the prevention and detection of crime," responses from Northamptonshire, Durham, and several other police forces read. Many of the requests added that the requested information would, "provide an indication to any individual who may be undertaking criminal/terrorist activities that the police service may be aware of their presence and taking counter terrorist measures."

Puzzled by these seemingly copy-and-pasted responses, Motherboard then asked several agencies for the request processing notes. These are any documents created, or communications sent, while the police force went about fulfilling the request.

It turns out that the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC), which coordinates police forces across the country for things like setting standards, and sorting out a response to national emergencies, had given guidance to all of the forces Motherboard contacted on how to respond.

Screengrab by author.

"Although there is information in the public domain […], and it is mentioned in the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, we would still not want to confirm or deny that forces have or have not been applying these techniques since 2010," reads an email the NPCC sent sent to all UK police forces reads. The email was marked for "POLICE EYES ONLY."

"This technique could be deployed for more high profile sensitive operations, albeit not necessarily in your force area, therefore the NCND [neither confirm nor deny] is required to protect other forces that may use it," the email continues. The NPCC then provides the two pages of argumentation for withholding the information that many of the forces ended up sending to Motherboard. (The Metropolitan Police Service also provided this NPCC email to Motherboard, but it was heavily redacted).

It isn't a secret that the NPCC does this sort of thing: The organisation encompasses the National Police Freedom of Information and Data Protection Unit, whose mandates includes providing advice and support for forces on FOIA-related matters. Similar processes exist for other government departments.

But seeing firsthand how the police keep information secret on a national scale is still enlightening, especially to journalists or researchers.

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