Feeds

Climategate ruling: FOIA requests cover backup servers too

'We didn't delete the emails, but we don't have them'

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Seven Steps to Software Security

A landmark FOIA ruling last week will have far-reaching consequences for how public servants interpret their Freedom of Information obligations. Specifically, public servants cannot delete local copies of a file on their PC and then use its absence as an excuse not to disclose the file - if a backup copy exists on the organisation's systems. In other words: backup servers must be searched for FOIA requests.

The FOIA Tribunal heard the case last December and made its judgement last week. The case was brought by Dr Don Keiller, deputy head of Life Sciences at Ruskin University, Cambridge, against the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU), the academics at the centre of the 'Climategate' scandals.

CRU's director Phil Jones had earlier shared raw data freely, allowing other scientists to replicate their work, which includes the HADCRUT processed global temperature series. The data was gained by CRU from several sources, including national weather services (NMSs in the jargon).

But after 2003, Jones began to find reasons not to share the data.

"Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?" Jones wrote to climatologist Warwick Hughes in 2005 [ background ].

Some of the reasons Jones (and CRU) offered began to strike people as strange. It emerged that Jones had shared the raw data with a sympathetic source - Georgia Tech. Why couldn't he share it more widely?

Jones first claimed there were clauses preventing disclosure to non-academics. Then it became clear that this was an argument of convenience: these agreements didn't exist. The excuse changed: CRU couldn't share the raw data because of confidentially agreements with the original NMSs. He would even attempt to argue that the raw data had been distributed in a a personal email, not in his professional capacity as a public servant.

"If there ever were such confidentiality agreements, then CRU had breached them right from the start – by sending the 1991 version of the data to the US Department of Energy which published the station data online; by placing the 1996 version online at CRU as part of the ADVANCE/10K program; and by sending station data out on request (not just to Georgia Tech, but to others, including Mann and Rutherford in 2005 and even to me in 2002 before I was identified as a potential critic)," noted Steve McIntyre recently.

This, and some more of the back story (including discussions between Jones and CRU's FOIA office on how to evade their obligations) became public in two releases of internal emails from CRU's servers; the tale is partially recounted here.

Jones argued:

We do concede that information was provided to Georgia Tech without securing consent of the institutions that provided it, and, upon reflection, this is an action we would not choose to take again. However, having made one error does not, in our eyes, justify making the same error again.

In the first batch of Climategate emails, which cover a period to late 2009, we find Jones vowing to "hide behind" loopholes in FOIA legislation, advising colleagues to delete emails. In an email to the Met Office's Jean Palutikof, Jones explained, in discussing a FOIA request from David Holland that, "Keith and Tim have moved all their emails from all the named people off their PCs and they are all on a memory stick."

(The significance of this is discussed in a footnote to this story.)

The Power of One eBook: Top reasons to choose HP BladeSystem

More from The Register

next story
Bad back? Show some spine and stop popping paracetamol
Study finds common pain-killer doesn't reduce pain or shorten recovery
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 claimed lives of HIV/AIDS cure scientists
Researchers, advocates, health workers among those on shot-down plane
World Solar Challenge contender claims new speed record
One charge sees Sunswift travel 500kms at over 100 km/h
SMELL YOU LATER, LOSERS – Dumbo tells rats, dogs... humans
Junk in the trunk? That's what people have
Beancounters tell NASA it's too poor to fly planned mega-rocket
Space Launch System would need another $400m and a lot of time
All those new '5G standards'? Here's the science they rely on
Radio professor tells us how wireless will get faster in the real world
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Prevent sensitive data leakage over insecure channels or stolen mobile devices.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.