Thursday, June 13, 2019

Googling OIA requesters violates the Privacy Act

I saw an interesting article from FOIMan - a UK-based fredom of information site - on the subject of agencies googling requesters. This is apparently a common practice, but their short advice is "don't": its not just creepy and intimidating, it also almost certainly violates UK privacy legislation:

what’s your lawful basis? An individual’s FOI request, their identity, biographical information about them is personal data. You need a lawful basis to justify the handling of personal data – including searching for information about someone online. I presume you’ve completed a legitimate interest assessment and successfully justified how your need to know whether or not someone is a journalist outweighs the rights and freedoms of requesters? Even if you decide that you do have such a basis, are you otherwise complying with the requirements of the GDPR? Are you telling requesters that if they make a request it will result in the council looking them up online?

I'm aware anecdotally that New Zealand agencies also do this. But New Zealand has similar legislation, and the same logic applies here. Privacy Principle 1 requires that agencies only collect information "for a lawful purpose connected with a function or activity of the agency". And its difficult to imagine a lawful purpose for digitally spying on a requester in this way. Their motives or how they may use the requested information are not relevant to how a request should be processed. Their political views and whether they may be a journalist or a critic of the government explicitly are not. Requests should be processed without regard to such factors (sadly, as we all know, they are not). The fact that information about a requester is publicly available doesn't change that in the slightest: there must be a lawful purpose for collection before the question of public availability is even considered.

So, next time you get an OIA request, don't google them. Don't be curious - be professional instead.