State could be hiding millions of documents intended for the public

An analysis conducted by the Ministry of the Interior has pointed out a common problem for all state institutions - there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of documents that should be available to the public, but are classified.

Each ministry and most state institutions have a document registry, where all correspondences, contracts, analyses and memos are uploaded. For example, nearly 400,000 documents were generated in the social ministry's field alone. 88 percent of those are not meant for the eyes of the public because they are marked as AK ("intended for internal use"). While the documents are visible in the registries, they cannot be accessed.

The social ministry's internal audit department took a look at how the ministry handles its documents. Among many things, the analysis uncovered that 3.3 percent - 11,000 documents - were classified for no reason.

"Some of these documents are ones we are sent, where other people have put on the AK-marking and they continue to circulate in our systems," said internal audit department head Tarmo Olgo. "And some documents are ones, in which people have perhaps sensed the information as more important than it is and felt it needed to be protected."

Legislation allows for documents to be classified for certain situations and only for a certain period. Olgo noted that there are more than 8,000 people in the social ministry's field and all of them can make mistakes.

"In our analysis, we also recommended that more attention could be turned to drawing up general directives in institutions and providing employees training about what documents can be marked and where that is not appropriate," Olgo added.

Data Protection Inspectorate legal adviser Liisa Ojangu said the interior ministry is no exception. Documents are marked "AK" incorrectly in most state institutions and local municipality governments.

"Access restrictions are firmly imposed, but the content might not be up to it, at all," Ojangu said, adding that institutions impose restrictions on a lot of correspondences with private sector companies.

"But the institution itself has not assessed if there is a trade secret in there," the legal adviser said. "Companies are always quick to note that all their documents and correspondences with the institution contain trade secrets."

Millions of documents could be concealed

A much larger problem are the documents, for which the classified period has ended. Depending on the restriction, a document can be classified for 5-70 years. The five-year period can be extended with another five-year one.

After the due date passes, the documents should be published in the public registry, as is stated in the law. But reality is different. Documents are only provided to people who request the documents. This, in turn, presumes that the person knows how to make a request without knowing what is written in the document. Tarmo Olgo said this is a technological problem.

"Should it be so in the law?" Olgo asked and gave a response: "Of course not. But these are the places where we are dealing with the historical issues of information systems. They are not easy to solve."

Liisa Ojangu also said document management systems in Estonian state institutions do not allow for documents to be published automatically. "An intermediate option would be that it gives a notification if a document's due date is coming up and allows the person to confirm if it can be published," Ojangu offered up a solution. "But I do not think such an option is used currently."

The interior ministry analysis notes that such options do exist. But it has been turned off, because the system does not allow individual recipients to be chosen. Meaning, the creator of the document can be notified, but they might not even be working in the institution any longer.

Olgo added that reviewing such notifications daily would be quite burdensome for officials. "Figuratively speaking, some 500,000-600,000 documents marked 'AK' would have to be reviewed each year. It is a lot of work," the interior ministry internal auditor said.

So these documents are left classified. And there are hundreds of thousands of such documents in the internal ministry's registry alone. All state institutions are violating the law in this manner and are likely concealing millions of documents intended for public use.

But how to proceed? In principle, every interested person could turn to the Data Protection Inspectorate with a complaint and demand that this offense should be stopped at any cost. The inspectorate should then initiate monitoring procedures.

"We do not have any basis that would say that if it costs too much to fill up precepts, then they should not be done. Basically that is the direction it would go, yes," Ojangu said.

Read the article at ERR.