Climategate University Broke Information Rules

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

The climate research unit, whose hacked emails sparked a row, broke the law according to the Information Commissioner

A leading climate change research unit broke the law by refusing to comply with requests for scientific data, although it will not be prosecuted, according to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Private files from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit were hacked and released online in November by climate change deniers, who accused the Unit of interfering with the peer review process for scientific paper, of falsifying climate change data, and hiding that data from requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

The alleged tampering by the Unit was not enough to damage the overall case that global warming is caused by human beings, and remains unproven. However, the ensuing “Climategate” scandal weakened the perceived case for carbon reduction, and may have been instrumental in the failure of the UN’s Copenhagen summit to produce strong commitments

According to the Information Commissioner, those files reveal that the Unit did fail to comply with a Freedom of Information request. “Requests made under the Freedom of Information Act were not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation”, a statement said. However, the complaint was made too late, as there is a six-month window for prosecutions.

The ICO is campaigning to have the time-limit abolished, as it makes complaints almost impossible. Retired engineer David Holland, who made the original FOI request to the university has pointed out that the University’s complaints procedure must be exhausted before the commission will look at any request.

“The ICO is gathering evidence from this and other time-barred cases to support the case for a change in the law,” the Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith said in a statement . “We will be advising the university about the importance of effective records management and their legal obligations in respect of future requests for information.”

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When the emails emerged, the Unit’s director, Phil Jones (left) stood down and an enquiry was set up under Sir Muir Russell. The university has released all the Unit’s data in any case, making agreements with other copyright owners.

The Information Commissioner also acts in cases where information is inadvertently exposed – and warned this week that there will be tougher penalites for these data breaches, as it now has the ability fo fine companies up to half a million pounds.

The CRU has not yet responded to the ICO’s statement, and did not reply to eWEEK Europe’s requests before publication.