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Pam Frampton: PIN the tale on the premier’s office

BlackBerry text messages and PINs have long been a popular method of communication in government. —
BlackBerry text messages and PINs have long been a popular method of communication in government. — 123RF Stock Photo

“A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” — Dalai Lama

Text-message shorthand for an incredulous expletive was the first thing to flash through my mind this week (sorry, Mom) when I read Telegram reporter David Maher’s story on the elusiveness of BlackBerry messages in the premier’s office.

And then, recalling recent history, I wondered why I was even surprised.

The story described how on April 25, 2018, the CBC filed an access request for BlackBerry messages (BBMs) sent between members of Premier Dwight Ball’s senior staff from April 21 to April 25. They were hoping to learn what was being said about harassment allegations made against then Liberal cabinet ministers Dale Kirby and Eddie Joyce.

As provincial Information and Privacy Commissioner Donovan Molloy noted in his report this week, two days after the CBC’s request, “senior staff of the premier’s office were notified that they were required to search their BlackBerry devices to determine whether there were any (pertinent) BBMs or PINs (personal identification number messages).”

It took up to 15 business days for some senior staffers to respond.

In the end, the premier’s office said there were no records that matched the CBC’s request, even though the CBC said it had reason to believe such messages had existed.

BBMs and PINs have long been a popular method of communication in government. You may recall during Kathy Dunderdale’s administration, when BBMs were sent out to prod MHAs to vote multiple times in online question-of-the-day media polls, in order to skew the results in their party’s favour.

The Telegram was privy to those text messages only because they were leaked to us.

And then in August 2016, The Telegram filed an access request for all PINs sent to Premier Dwight Ball, his then chief of staff, Kelvin Parsons, and his then communications director, Nancy O’Connor, during the period July 4-8, 2016.

Four weeks later, the response came back: there weren’t any.

The Telegram reported at the time: “Blackberry messages have in recent years been a favourite form of communication among politicians. Because the messages are sent through BlackBerry servers and not government IT infrastructure, they are often not covered by access to information requests.”

Here’s what we’re being asked to believe here: either that none of the text messages exchanged by members of the premier’s senior staff during a period of roiling controversy over cabinet ministers and harassment allegations had anything to do with government business; or, that none were sent.

When the CBC’s recent access request turned up nothing, the premier’s office told the Office of the Privacy Commissioner that “the type of records requested were transitory, thereby explaining why they were not retained.”

Yet any communications involving government business are supposed to be kept as records that can be accessed upon request.

Here’s what we’re being asked to believe here: either that none of the text messages exchanged by members of the premier’s senior staff during a period of roiling controversy over cabinet ministers and harassment allegations had anything to do with government business; or, that none were sent.

In 2013, Suzanne Legault was the federal information commissioner, and after she noticed an increase in complaints to her office about government records that mysteriously seemed not to exist, she wrote a special report entitled “Instant messaging putting access to information at risk.”

She was writing about federal institutions, but her warning is relevant to provincial politics as well: “there is a real risk that information that should be accessible by requesters is being irremediably deleted or lost…,” she wrote.

“Reliance on the goodwill of individual public servants and ministerial staff to identify, save and store records of business value is insufficient to address the risk that information that should be subject to the Act will be lost without a means of being recovered or retrieved.”

Her recommendation? Disable instant messaging on all government-issued wireless devices in order to safeguard public information, except under certain strict conditions.

If such a suggestion were made in this province, I’m guessing many politicians and senior staffers would be hard pressed to keep a straight face.

It’s not really funny, though, is it, if we were to learn that elected officials and their staff are deleting information precisely so that we can’t access it.

Pam Frampton is a columnist whose work is published in The Western Star and The Telegram. Email pamela.frampton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton

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