Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Snailmail, the Police and the OIA

I was alerted today to a disturbing incident of the police demanding a snailmail address for a request made over the public OIA website, FYI. Someone had requested information on police identity badges, and been immediately asked to prove they were eligible to make a request. This is not the first time this has happened. A request for information on the Police's use of Automatic Number-Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology attracted the same response.

There's an obvious link between the two incidents. Both are requesting potentially controversial information (the first request seems to have been spurred by allegations that police at last week's student protest were not wearing badges; the latter involves a controversial technology with significant privacy implications, which the police may not want to discuss at this stage). Meanwhile, other requests for less controversial information (e.g. crime statistics, 111 services for the deaf and hearing-impaired) are answered immediately and without fuss. The pattern is quite apparent in the list of FYI requests made to police.

So, we have a case of the Police being unreasonable, and seizing on the fact that a request is made electronically (and requests an electronic response) in an effort to impede it and force the requestor to go away. But this also raises wider problems with the OIA and its ability to keep up with technology.

To put it bluntly, snailmail is dying. NZ Post is looking at cutting deliveries to three days a week. Meanwhile, more and more everyday business is moving online. I pay my bills online. I do my banking online. I buy my books and toys online. I actually sent a physical letter at the weekend, because I had to get a physical document to someone I didn't personally know, and a scan wouldn't do - but I can't remember the last time I sent one before that. And this trend is only going to get stronger. In this environment, insisting on a snailmail address isn't just mindlessly (or in this case, malevolently) bureaucratic - it is downright backwards, on the same level as asking someone for a carrier pigeon or their preferred telegraph code. And yet the Act apparently allows them to do it.

The short-term solution is to educate the police about the modern world, and their duties under the Act (in particular, a request being for "controversial" information is not a reason to impede it). In the longer-term, we need to look at the Act. One obvious solution would be to align the eligibility regime of the OIA with that of LGOIMA, which allows requests to be made by "any person". But then I suppose the Police would be asking people to prove that they're not dogs...