Scottish Information Commissioner refuses to investigate requests made under a pseudonym

The Scottish Information Commissioner has changed his guidance on how public authorities should deal with requests made under a pseudonym.

The Commissioner previously stated that an applicant could use a pseudonym, but the updated guidance now appears to state the reverse: for an application to be considered valid, the actual name of the applicant must be used. The Commissioner will now refuse to investigate cases where a pseudonym has been used.

This could have worrying implications for potential whistleblowers and employees who could be discriminated against in the workplace for submitting information requests to the organisation they work for. It also seems to go against the underlying principles of the Act which state that the purpose of a request is not relevant to an authority - therefore the identity of the applicant should not be of importance, since what is important is whether the information requested should be released into the public domain (and that decision should be arrived at objectively, irrespective of the identity of the person who made the request).

The Commissioner has prepared a new FAQ for public authorities, which suggests ways of dealing with applications made under a pseudonym. The revised guidance for public authorities appears to contradict the Commissioner's own position on the matter:
"FOISA states that an information request must include the name of the applicant. This must be the real name of the applicant. So, if a request comes in from someone who has obviously given a false name, the application is invalid and the public authority does not have to deal with it. However, FOISA does not allow public authorities to enquire into the circumstances of the applicant or to ask for information in order to verify identities. As a result, unless you know for sure that the applicant has used a pseudonym, it will be difficult to refuse to deal with an information request on that ground.

A better starting point is the assumption built into FOISA that public authorities must generally discount the identity and circumstances of the applicant and must regard any release of information as if it were a release to the world at large. This approach recognises that applicants cannot gain any advantage by using a pseudonym.

You should also remember your duty to provide advice and assistance to an applicant under section 15 of FOISA. So, if it is obvious that a pseudonym has been used, you should tell the applicant that if they make the request under their own name then you will deal with the request. It may be that the applicant has particular reasons for not revealing their identity but rather than using a false name it is open to them to ask a friend or relative to make the request instead."

The previous advice stated:
"Although it may be helpful if an applicant provided a real name and postal address, that is not what the Act requires at sec.8(1)(a). The public authority needs only a means of replying to the request. The requester does not have to be a UK citizen or domiciled in any part of the UK."

Other advice from the Commissioner which has been changed concerns requests made to public authorities by e-mail. The question "FOISA says that a request must contain a name and address. What if I only have the e-mail address of the applicant and not the home address?" was previously answered: "The Commissioner has confirmed that an e-mail address is sufficient to comply with the requirements of both FOISA and the EIRs. The requirement for a name and address is simply to allow the authority to have a means of replying."

The revised answer is now: "FOISA states that a request must include an address for correspondence. The Commissioner has confirmed that an e-mail address is sufficient. However, where an email address is used, the applicant must also give their name in the body of the email to fulfil the requirement that the name of the applicant is given."

Do I have to deal with a request which comes in from someone who has obviously given me a false name, such as Mickey Mouse? (Scottish Information Commissioner's website, 22 December 2005)