We received a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA):
I am currently writing a book on Club Penguin, a virtual world owned by Disney which was played by millions of children. In doing so, I've stumbled across files which state that British officers - potentially from your force - were located within Club Penguin offices for the purpose of crime prevention. I'd therefore like to request the following information:
1) How many officers were positioned in Club Penguin offices?
2) Where were these offices located? (There is reference to some in Kelowna, Canada, but Club Penguin also had an office in Brighton)
3) From what time period did this arrangement exist?
4) How many cases were handled by these officers?
5) I would also be grateful for copies of documentation and correspondence which detail this arrangement between your force and Club Penguin. It may be possible to find through an email search ending with "@clubpenguin.com" or "@disney.com". I expect that all the relevant information would be between 2009 and 2013.
6) If - and only if - your force is able to perform a keyword search of email correspondence and case files, I would be grateful for a copy of all email correspondence and case files containing the keyword "Club Penguin".
As you may be aware, Club Penguin closed in 2017, and thus I do not expect the prevention of crime exemption to be relevant here. If this information cannot be found, I would be very grateful for a detailed account of what steps were taken to find it.
West Yorkshire Police can neither confirm nor deny that it holds the information you have requested as the duty in s1(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 does not apply, by virtue of Section 23(5) Information Supplied by or Concerning Certain Security Bodies, Section 30(3) Investigations and Proceedings Conducted by Public Authorities, and Section 31(3) Law Enforcement.
Please see Appendix A for the full legislative explanation as to why West Yorkshire Police can neither Confirm nor Deny whether any information is held.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000, creates a statutory right of access to information held by Public Authorities. A Public Authority in receipt of a request, must if permitted state under Section 1(a) of the FOI Act, whether it holds the requested information and if held, then communicate that information to the applicant, under Section 1(b) of the Act.
The right of access to information is not without exception and is subject to a number of exemptions. These exemptions are designed to enable public authorities, to withhold information that is unsuitable for release.
Importantly the Act is designed to place information into the public domain, so that is accessible if granted to one person under the Act. It is then considered public information and must be communicated to any individual, should a request be received.
This letter serves as a Refusal Notice under Section 17 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
Section 17 of the Act provides:
(1) A public authority which, in relation to any request for information, is to any extent relying on a Claim, that information is exempt information must within the time for complying with Section 1(1), giving the applicant a notice which:-
(a) States the fact,
(b) Specifies the exemption in question, and
(c) States (if that would not otherwise be apparent) why the exemption applies.
Reason for decision.
West Yorkshire Police can neither confirm nor deny that it holds the information you have requested as the duty in s1(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 does not apply, by virtue of the following exemption(s):
Section 23(5) - Information Supplied by or Concerning Certain Security Bodies
Section 30(3) - Investigations and Proceedings Conducted by Public Authorities
Section 31(3) - Law Enforcement
Section 23 is an absolute class-based exemption and there is no requirement to conduct a harm or public interest test.
Section 30 is a qualified, class-based and therefore does not require any harm to be evidence, but a public interest test does need to be conducted.
Section 31 is a qualified, prejudice-based exemption and therefore requires the harm that would be caused in confirming or denying that any information is held to be articulated, as well as carrying out a public interest test.
Please see my considerations below;
Harm in complying with Section 1(1)(a) – to confirm or not whether information is or isn’t held
The public expect police forces and other law enforcement agencies (LEAs) to use all powers and tactics available to prevent and detect crime or disorder and maintain public safety. There are a number of covert tactics available and undercover policing is one of them, which could include the deployment of online operatives in pursuit of tackling child sexual exploitation. Applied correctly, and supported by appropriate training, it is a proportionate, lawful and ethical tactic which provides an effective means of obtaining evidence and intelligence.
Undercover policing is only used as defined within relevant legislation, i.e. the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and any undercover officers are bound by a Code of Ethics.
The College of Policing Authorised Professional Practice for Undercover Policing details the principles and standards of undercover officers; the legal framework which underpins their use and sets the standards of professional practice, see below link:
In addition this APP clearly articulates the harm in confirming or denying whether information is held relating to undercover officers:
‘… The established principle of NCND is used by law enforcement agencies to protect covert methods, sensitive information and the identity of sources of information including UCOs. NCND is not to be used to hide information the force or agency does not wish to disclose. It safeguards tactics and the lives and wellbeing of UCOs, their families and others. Sometimes simply confirming or denying whether a force or agency holds a particular category of information could itself disclose sensitive and damaging information. The principle of NCND is needed to prevent harm which may arise if law enforcement agencies have to confirm or deny whether they hold particular information.…’
Albeit Club Penguin was discontinued by Disney, the impact of confirming or denying whether information is held would undermine the College of Policing APP for Undercover Policing and more importantly the whole covert ‘undercover’ policing ethos.
In addition, to confirm or deny whether information is held in this case has the potential to undermine the flow of information (intelligence) received from members of the public into the Police Service and other outside agencies relating to child sexual exploitation via any other online platforms. Furthermore, ongoing investigations would also be compromised which could lead to police officers having to be removed from their frontline duties in order to increase manpower on a particular operation/investigation.
Finally, sexual offences against children is a highly emotive subject and not only a national problem but also a global one. In order to ensure the police delivers effective law enforcement we liaise with various other law enforcement partners to provide suitable support. Not only would police investigations be compromised but any enquiries or investigations that other agencies may be undertaking would also be compromised.
Public Interest Test
Factors favouring confirming or denying that any information is held under Section 30
Confirming or denying that any information exists would lead to a better informed public, improving their knowledge and understanding of how the Police Service utilise their resources as part of their investigative policing.
The Police Service is charged with enforcing the law, preventing and detecting crime and protecting the communities we serve. Confirming or denying that information exists could promote public trust in providing transparency and demonstrating openness and accountability into whether any investigations took place relevant to this request. It could also provide reassurance to the public that the Police Service takes all reports of a crime seriously and conducts investigations appropriately. To confirm information is held could allow the public to have a better understanding of the effectiveness of the Police Service.
Factors against confirming or denying that any information is held under Section 30
However, by its very nature information held relating to the topic of investigating child sexual exploitation online is sensitive. Under FOI there is a requirement to comply with Section 1(1)(a) and confirm what information is held. In some cases, it is that confirmation, or not, which could disclose facts harmful to individuals and ongoing investigations. In some cases, their mere existence can place individuals in grave danger. The only methodology which will provide the required degree of protection to those individuals is if the force takes advantage of its ability under FOI legislation to, when appropriate, not confirm or deny that the information requested or the type of information requested is or is not held. The Police Service will never confirm or deny information is held if in doing so could identify investigative activity, and therefore undermine their investigations. To do so would hinder the prevention or detection of crime.
Factors favouring confirming or denying whether information is held under Section 31
To confirm or deny that this information is held would make members of the public more aware of whether or not the police were aware of the presence of child sexual exploitation on specific platforms, such as Club Penguin, and acted accordingly. Improved public awareness may lead to more intelligence being submitted to the police as members of the public will be more observant to suspicious activity which in turn may result in a reduction of crime.
Factors against confirming or denying whether information is held under Section 31
To confirm or deny that the requested information is held could compromise law enforcement tactics which would hinder our ability to prevent and detect crimes. More crimes could be committed as providing an indication to any individual who may be undertaking criminal activities that the police service may or may not be aware of their presence online and those criminals will take steps to avoid detection, or otherwise embolden them to operate with a sense of impunity, thus placing the public (children to be precise) at a greater risk.
The points above highlight the merits of confirming, or denying, whether any information pertinent to this request exists. The Police Service is charged with enforcing the law, preventing and detecting crime and protecting the communities we serve. The Police Service will never divulge whether or not information pertinent to this request does or does not exist, if to do so it would open the door to similar requests about policing activity within a similar environment, the results of which would place the safety of an individual(s) at risk, compromise an ongoing investigation or undermine the policing purpose in the effective delivery of operational law enforcement.
Whilst there is a public interest in the transparency of policing operations and investigations, providing reassurance that the Police Service is appropriately and effectively engaging with the threat from criminals, there is a very strong public interest in safeguarding of the individuals, in this case children. As much as there is a public interest in knowing that policing activity is appropriate and balanced it will only be overridden in exceptional circumstances.
Therefore, at this moment in time, it is our opinion that for these issues the balance test for neither confirming, nor denying that information is held is appropriate.
No inference can be taken from this refusal that information does or does not exist.