Chris Cook

A few weeks ago, the Financial Times leader column – the voice of the newspaper – issued a fairly damning verdict on the Information Commissioner’s Office about its weak enforcement of the Freedom of Information Act. Big central government departments – particularly the Cabinet Office – routinely flout the law. The ‘paper wrote:

The Cabinet Office scarcely pretends to comply. And why would it? Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, is responsible for enforcing the act – and he has proved to be a paper tiger. He has the power to investigate, demand documents and prosecute the non-compliant. But his preferred regulatory tool is forbearance. So the worst that departments have to fear from refusing to follow the law is being asked to have another go at answering requests at some later date.

Mr Graham replied fairly grumpily on our letters page.

…we served a decision notice against the Department for Education, clearly setting out our position in general and on the specific point that the secretary of state’s private email was caught by the act (in the circumstances of that case). We also served a further decision notice ordering the Cabinet Office to comply with a request for information relating to the prime minister’s use of non-GSI email accounts. Non-compliance with the commissioner’s decision notice is contempt of court.

The record shows that the Information Commissioner’s Office regularly makes difficult decisions that challenge Whitehall – and we are not afraid to make them

It was not terribly convincing – and was filleted by others fairly comprehensively. But last week, the Information Commissioner’s Office released some documents in response to a FoIA request about the letter. The surprising part of the release is that it suggests the ICO’s staff not only wrote the letter, but are convinced by their arguments. Given that, it is worth unpacking the claims it makes – not least for their benefit. 

Chris Cook

One of my perennial moans about Britain is the lousy state of its badly funded thinktanks: there are noble exceptions, but too few. This weekend, the Centre for Policy Studies published a piece arguing that the BBC was not impartial in its choice of stories nor its presentation of them; leftier thinktanks, it reckoned, get more coverage than rightier ones and an easier ride. I claim no expertise in that. I was more interested by the maths: the conclusions may well be right, but the analysis is bizarre.

The work relies upon a ranking of how left- or rightwing thinktanks are, which is drawn from the number of mentions of those thinktanks in articles in the Guardian (for the left) and the Telegraph (on the right). There are many, many things wrong with the analysis. 

Chris Cook

Charles, William, George. If all goes to plan, and God does, indeed, save our Kings, Britons now know the names of the men who will be head of state for the 21st century. But Ben Goldacre, the science writer, asked a good (if morbid) question: what chance does any one of us have of being alive when George finally takes to the throne? Thanks to Matthew Fletcher, a senior consultant at Towers Watson, a global actuarial firm, we now know.

You can get your precise numbers here, and read on to see how your odds were calculated

First, here is the likely probability distribution about when he will get under the crown. This makes a few assumptions that the royals age much like the rest of us, will not abdicate and that culottes-free Britons won’t storm Sandringham any time soon.

Again, assuming no chopping and changing, he also worked out the probability

  • that George follows on straight from Elizabeth – 0.1 per cent
  • that George takes over from Charles – 4.7 per cent
  • that George follows William – 88.6 per cent
  • that George is never king – 6.6 per cent

 

Chris Cook

The Freedom of Information Act has a clause which allows public authorities to ignore a request for information “if the request is vexatious”. It says little about what members of the public can do if they encounter vexatious government departments.

The Cabinet Office – which includes the prime minister’s office – seems now to be openly refusing to comply with the transparency law, especially when it comes to the person of the prime minister. His courtiers seem to regard FoIA requests as lèse-majesté, and to see fighting transparency as part of their roles. 

Chris Cook

The NSA data-collection story has prompted a lot of reporting about “metadata” – information about communications between individuals. As the FT has reported:

The practice was revealed by The Guardian, which published an order – signed by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – instructing Verizon to give the NSA the metadata, or information logs, for the calls “on an ongoing daily basis”.

Call logs really matter. Even if you cannot hear the calls, metadata – knowing who called whom – is massively important. It allows you to build a picture of who knows whom and how well. This sounds trivially true, but computing power means it’s extremely easy to pull out this data in real time and in great detail. And if you spot a suspicious group, you can then get another warrant to listen in on their conversations.

Here is an example: I’ve put my Facebook account details into a piece of analytical software – and, 10 seconds later, this is my life:

This is a map of who my friends are based solely on knowing which of them is friends of the others. Nothing else. Just Facebook friend lists. It has worked out that the big clusters are groups of people who know one another – so probably have something in common. The ones at the centre of the packs know everyone else around them, and those at the edge are more peripheral.

 

Chris Cook

Today, I gave a brief presentation – based on our previous stories – on the performance of London schools to the excellent Centre for London. Some slides are a little mysterious without my burbling over the top, but I hope it’s understandable enough.