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Andrew Robinson
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Instant messaging ‘ripe for abuse’ in government, but not a huge issue, commissioner says

Reaction is mixed as to whether the provincial government should consider a recommendation recently put forward by the federal information commissioner to ban instant messaging on government-issued wireless devices to protect the public’s access to information.

Last week, Suzanne Legault issued a report outlining her concerns about how quickly instant messages disappear through automatic deletion, a process that typically kicks in after 30 days. She felt this would compromise the ability of Canadians to request instant messages through the Access to Information Act.

Provincial information and privacy commissioner Ed Ring has read Legault’s report and believes her concerns are reasonable.

“The principle behind what the federal information commissioner is saying is one that I certainly support, and that is when you’re carrying out government work or public work, that it should be done in a form where you should be able to save it, store it­ and retrieve it on a request.”

A policy is already in place through the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) in Newfoundland and Labrador calling on those working in government to avoid using instant messages to conduct government business activity.

In a directive approved in December 2011, OCIO states, “Instant messages that evolve into a record of a business decision or activity must be transferred to an appropriate format for management as a government record.”

According to a document on the OCIO website, that directive was scheduled to be the subject of a review Thursday.

Instant messaging within the provincial government was highlighted during the Cameron Inquiry in 2008.

It was also in the news earlier this year when The Telegram ran a series of stories about government members and supporters using Blackberry instant messages, or PINs, to co-ordinate efforts to sway media opinion surveys.

Steve Kent, the acting minister responsible for the office of public engagement, likens instant messaging on government-issued devices to conversations.

“The use of instant messaging is a form of real-time, direct communication between two or more parties and is viewed similarly to telephone or face-to-face conversation,” explained Kent in an email to The Telegram.

“We would not prohibit employees from speaking with colleagues in person or on the phone.”

He also noted that the proper management of government records and information is mandated by law under the Management of Information Act. Penalties exist for violating that act.

Ring recognizes the potential to abuse the policies in place for instant messaging.

“I guess what you’re (asking) is, ‘Is it ripe for abuse?’ The answer is, ‘Yes.’ But how do you control it?”

At the decision-making stage of government activities, Ring said auditable records must exist to trace the process responsible for spending large sums of money.

“As far as I’m concerned, it has not been a huge issue or an issue at all,” Ring said of complaints about accessing information exchanged through instant messages.

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said while she is glad to see current provincial policy reflects Legault’s concerns about having access to instant messages, the ability to monitor that process is non-existent.

“I imagine that’s why she’s actually gone further and has recommended disabling the instant messaging on the government wireless devices,” said Michael.

“You can’t monitor whether or not there’s been messages that haven’t been forwarded to an email. We’d all like to think that self-regulation will work, but I don’t think the general public would believe that based on all the things that are happening right now.”

Liberal MHA Lisa Dempster said  while she understands the value of transparency as it pertains to elected officials, she does not believe a ban on sending instant messages from government-issued devices is a good idea.

“I think we live in a technological age now,” said the MHA for Cartwright-L'Anse au Clair. “Instant messaging has become a valuable communication tool for us MHAs, especially for keeping in touch with our constituents.”

Given how often people in government are on the move, she said, its beneficial to have instant messaging close at hand for reaching colleagues immediately.

“Sometimes information comes down the pipe, it’s really time sensitive, and it’s only because of that instant messaging and the texting that we’re made aware of it right away.”

Ring agrees there is a place for the use of instant messaging in government, citing its usefulness in arranging meetings, for example.

arobinson@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @TeleAndrew

Organizations: Office of the Chief Information Officer, The Telegram

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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