Federal government losing data that should be available to public, watchdog warns

Federal government losing data that should be available to public, watchdog warns by Jason Fekete and Andrea Hill, Postmedia News, November 29, 2013, Calgary Herald
A recommendation by Canada’s information watchdog that federal institutions disable instant messaging on government-issued wireless devices is “nonsensical,” says Treasury Board President Tony Clement. ”The solution to an issue is not to ban the use of instant messaging or text messaging,” he told reporters outside the House of Commons Thursday. His comments came hours after Canada’s information commissioner released a report detailing how the Conservative government is impeding public access to important information contained in text messages from federal employees because departments and ministries generally refuse to save the instant messaging increasingly used by staff. Suzanne Legault recommended that the Treasury Board implement a government-wide policy instructing federal institutions to disable instant messaging, including PIN-to-PIN communication, on all government-issued wireless devices, except when specific conditions are met. Clement responded that existing rules governing text archiving are adequate. ”We have very clear rules in place. The clear rules are these: If this has to do with government, ­ with the business of government, you have to archive the instant message. If it doesn’t, you do not. I think that’s a simple rule.”

The use of instant messaging on government-issued wireless devices to conduct federal business is putting the right of access to information at an “unacceptable risk,” Legault said in her report. She examined whether government communications via BlackBerry PIN-to-PIN and SMS text messages ­ increasingly used by ministers’ offices and departments ­ were being properly preserved so the information could be retrieved by the public using the federal Access to Information Act. The number of complaints to her office about missing records has increased substantially in the last two years, to more than 400 in 2012-13, she says. Legault’s investigation into the use of wireless devices and instant messaging in 11 federal departments and agencies found a “real risk” that information in the messages, which should be accessible by requesters, is being “irremediably deleted or lost.” Moreover, the report said, no valid reason was provided to her office to justify the risk of losing the information, and the Conservative government’s own guidelines are only likely to worsen the situation and contribute to more important information being lost.

“Unless instant messages are actively saved, they will be automatically deleted from wireless devices after a short period and no longer exist or be recoverable by the time my office receives a complaint. For all practical purposes, this negates my ability to investigate the very existence of these records,” Legault says in her report. “Proposed Treasury Board Secretariat policies to address the use of new wireless technology and instant messaging will likely exacerbate the risk that government information, one of our national resources, will be lost.” Instant messages sent by federal employees are usually automatically deleted from wireless devices after 30 days, and generally aren’t recoverable once they’ve been deleted. However, Treasury Board’s proposed policy for email management would allow instant messages to be auto-deleted after only three days and for the messages not to be automatically backed up on a central server, the report says. The government’s draft protocol also says any instant message that does not have “business value” would be considered transitory and could be deleted at any time — which would breach the public’s legislated right to access all records, she says. With most government institutions not automatically backing up the instant messages, the information would be unavailable in access-to-information requests.

Access to instant messages sent and received by ministers’ offices is at particular risk, Legault says. Under current policies, ministers’ offices are generally the last to be asked for records as part of an access request, likely after instant messages have been auto-deleted. Legault’s review of 11 government institutions found that, “with few exceptions,” the instant messages ­ — unlike emails ­ — were not automatically stored on a corporate email server, even though it was possible for government departments and agencies to do this. As of August, 98,000 BlackBerrys had been issued to government institutions, the commissioner notes, with instant messaging, including communications via BlackBerry PIN, enabled on most of them. The federal privacy commissioner and Communications Security Establishment Canada, an ultra-secret spy agency, have previously highlighted security vulnerabilities associated with instant messaging, the report adds. Legault says her findings further demonstrate the need to amend the federal Access to Information Act to include a legal duty to document policy decisions by federal government officials — with sanctions for non-compliance. [Emphais added]

[Refer also to:

Harper government’s new tactics to keep information secret troubles Suzanne Legault, Information Commissioner of Canada

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