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Did UK.gov break the law with its child database?

Whitehall promises answers on specs of binned ContactPoint

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No comment, until now

However, back in 2008 we started asking questions about what data was being captured. In fact, we were more specific than that, asking for a list of what data was being held in the system – minus any meta-data details that could impinge on the system security.

Back came the response: no way. Releasing such details would be a risk to security. In vain we countered that we couldn’t see how it would be. The DCSF were immovable.

Fast-forward to this year and news that ContactPoint is to be scrapped and its data deleted for ever. This time we bunged in an FOI request, asking much the same question.

It took time. First we received the excuse, so frequently used by government departments, that it needed more time to answer. Though we can’t quite understand why, since after about two months, the shiny new Department of Education came back with another “no”. This time, the excuse was ever so slightly different: "The release of the information requested in this case could prejudice the system supplier’s commercial and financial interests as the design principles embodied in this information could be replicated by competitors. This information, if disclosed, could damage the system supplier’s business reputation and their customers’ confidence."

In addition: "Disclosure could also weaken the system supplier’s position in a competitive environment by revealing market-sensitive information or intellectual property information which could be useful to their competitors."

Oh, and data security as well. The department stated: "Releasing the data specification would not, on its own, present a direct threat to the security of the system. However it would, if made available to someone with the relevant IT knowledge intent on attacking the system, give them valuable information on how to most effectively probe for any security weaknesses."

We are appealing that one. We have also lobbed in a second FOI request. This time, we are asking not for the data spec but the logical spec used as brief for the base. Surely, we reasoned, that could not be commercially sensitive. We were still waiting until just a few days ago.

Twice we had been gently rebuffed with the suggestion that since it all happened under a previous administration, the department can’t see why anyone would care anymore. Would that apply to criminal acts committed by ourselves, we wondered? Er, of course not.

Two weeks ago, we asked again for an explanation of department's reluctance to answer simple questions on this issue. It looks like we might be getting a few answers this time (on the logical spec issue).

We also put it to the DoE directly that we believed it might have been acting unlawfully and asked for it to respond.

Then, on Friday, a reply – from a committee tasked to review its original decision not to release information. They tell us: “During the review it came to light that protective markings included on some of the information had been included in error. These markings had indicated that the information was commercially sensitive. It has now been confirmed that this is not the case.”

Ooops!

Still no sight of the information requested – we must now let them have a snail mail address for them to release documents to. When we receive it, we will carry out our own review. Did the DoE stick to the letter of the law? We have no idea – but we will let you know. ®

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