In writing to the Scottish Government on the topic of extreme pornography, twice my emails were blocked. The first time, in 2008, the email was saved from the dump.
Thank you for your e mail. Unfortunately it got caught by our firewall and has just been released. It would be helpful if any further e mails could be sent to the generic email box to which you sent your first e mail (Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill) as they would be less likely to be caught by the firewall.
The second time was in the midst of a Freedom of Information Request in 2011. This email got lost permanently, and it took a nudge from the Scottish Information Commissioner to retrieve it and get the FOIR back on track.
I am writing to you regarding your clarification of your FOI request of 13 May. I apologise that you have not received a response. Unfortunately, I have no record of ever having received this email.
To ensure that there are no future problems with missing emails, I will send an acknowledgement email to you on receipt of any future emails from you on this topic to confirm that I have received it. I think there may be a problem with the filters used on our email system accidentally blocking legitimate business emails.
Along these lines, CAAN-Scotland wrote requesting more information about the email system.
I would like to know how widespread this problem is, and what areas it effects. My emails were regarding the topic of pornography, but what other topics are at risk for the same problem?
1) Over the past 5 years (since Jan 2007), how many emails were blocked?
2) How many of these blocked emails were legitimate emails, like mine?
3) What topics (in general) were these legitimate emails about?
4) How many complaints about blocked emails has the Scottish Executive received in the past 5 years?
The response was detailed in some ways, but vague in others. From May 2008 to March 2012 just under 26 million emails were “quarantined”by the Scottish Government – this is roughly 6% of the 2.1 million a week they receive. During a 26-week test period, only 939 emails were released from quarantine by the recipients, or around 36 emails per week. One would assume that the Scottish Government would receive a lot of spam from publishing their email online, but this isn’t the spam filter, this is the “questionable” filter, and it nets 126,000 emails a week, but only 36 of those are ever rescued.
This is an extraordinary amount of “questionable” email. It’s hard to believe that this filter hasn’t caused other legitimate emails to go missing. The Information Services and Information Systems (ISIS) manager who responded stated that records were not kept as to what topics the rescued emails were about. They also state that they “have no recorded complaints regarding blocked emails in the last 5 years.”
This filter should be called Hotel California: the emails check in, but they’ll never leave.
So what is so evil that it has to be quarantined and abandoned like this?
The official definition is: “when the software believes that it has identified an email containing malicious software or potentially inappropriate content”.
A follow-up FOIR obtained the slightly better definition:
Email content is quarantined for a number of reasons, including but not limited to:
- Emails which contain software attachments that could infect the Scottish Government network with a virus.
- Emails where the content cannot be scanned by the system for whatever reason (e.g. password protected).
- Emails containing content that could be considered offensive (e.g. swear words, sectarian or racist terms etc).
In the first email that was blocked, I used the word pornography 21 times, the word rape 8 times, the word sex 6 times, the word BDSM 4 times, bondage 3 times, the word alcohol twice, and some 400-odd words only once, presumably it was one of those that set off the censors.
In the second email that was blocked, I attached a pdf. Was this the problem? It’s not like pdfs are uncommon. This time pornography was used 31 times (including 4 times as porn), bestiality, rape, necrophilia, torture, and sadomasochism once each, but then, one needs to in order to describe the extreme porn law.
There is still no clear cut answer as to why my legitimate emails were blocked. I was not on a safe list for having sent other numerous emails to the individual. I did not swear. I was discussing a sensitive topic (sex), but sensitive topics is what the government deals with. If everything was cherry pie and roses, we wouldn’t need a government. I find it hard to believe, though, that no emails were filtered during the debates on minimum alcohol pricing, sectarianism and same-sex marriage.
So, in conclusion, if you do no want your email filtered by the nasty biased email system, if you have to send an attachment or use any sort of graphic language or language which might be considered offensive, even if that is the very topic of the email itself, you should send a near blank email directly following it asking if they can confirm receipt of your email.
Responses from the ISIS.