OTTAWA, Nov. 28, 2013 /CNW/ - Suzanne Legault, Information Commissioner
of Canada, issued a special report to Parliament today that recommends
specific controls be placed on instant messaging to preserve government
records and respect the federal access to information law. Instant
messages include what are commonly called "PINs" sent and received on
"After investigating the use of wireless devices and instant messaging
in 11 federal institutions, I have concluded that there is a real risk
that information that should be accessible by Canadians is being
irremediably deleted or lost," Legault said.
There were approximately 98,000 BlackBerrys issued to government
institutions. Instant messages sent and received on these devices are
automatically deleted—usually after 30 days—making them generally
unavailable for access to information purposes.
"While technology is a powerful tool for innovation, its use must not
infringe on the right of Canadians to know what government is doing and
to hold it accountable for its decisions," Legault said.
The report makes three specific recommendations, including that a
government-wide policy be issued instructing institutions to disable
instant messaging on all government-issued wireless devices, with few
exceptions. The President of the Treasury Board does not agree with the
recommendations and has declined to implement them.
Investigation into the impact of instant messaging on access to
The use of instant messaging on government-issued wireless devices to
conduct government business is putting the right of access to
information at an unacceptable risk.
Access to instant messages sent and received by ministers' office staff
is at particular risk.
As of August 2013, there were 98,000 BlackBerrys issued to government
institutions. Most of these devices would have had instant messaging
enabled, including allowing communications via BlackBerry PIN (personal
Instant messages are automatically deleted from wireless devices,
usually after 30 days. Generally, instant messages are not recoverable
once they have been deleted.
Of the 11 investigated institutions, only Foreign Affairs, Development
and Trade Canada, and National Defence automatically back up at least
some instant messages on servers.
Consequently, in most institutions, instant messages are unlikely to
exist anywhere after auto-deletion and would be unavailable to be
processed in response to access requests.
Current policies are insufficient to promote consistent practice,
direction and training across the government on the use and treatment
of instant messages. In addition, policy guidance is such that, without
automatic back-up, the preservation of instant messages for access and
other purposes relies on individual employees' taking the initiative to
Policies currently proposed by the Treasury Board Secretariat would put
the right of access at further risk by allowing instant messages to be
auto-deleted after only three days, instead of the current 30 days.
Institutions were unable to provide compelling reasons for using instant
messaging that outweigh the risk to the quasi-constitutional right of
All surveyed ministers' offices enable instant messaging for their
staff. However, the training on the information management and access
responsibilities associated with instant messaging varies widely and is
Under current policies, ministers' offices are generally the last to be
asked for records in response to access requests—likely after instant
messages have been auto-deleted.
The Information Commissioner recommended that ministers' offices be
asked for records right away.
The current treatment of instant messages hinders the Commissioner's
ability to investigate complaints about missing records.
Institutions allow instant messaging because it is faster and, in remote
locations, cheaper than using email, and because it makes
communications possible when servers are down.
The Commissioner recommended that instant messaging be disabled, except
for when there is a genuine operational need for it. Institutions must
set up a mechanism to automatically back up all messages and must
provide users with training on their information management and access
to information responsibilities.
The investigation highlights the need for the Access to Information Act to be amended to require government officials to create records
documenting their decisions for access purposes.
Given that it is usually at least 90 days (30 days to respond to a
request and 60 days to make a complaint) before the Commissioner
receives complaints about how institutions handled access requests, the
chances that instant messages will still exist at that point are
Missing records complaints amount to nearly half of complaints about
refusals to grant access. The Office of the Information commissioner
registered more than 400 missing records complaints in 2012-2013.
The President of the Treasury Board has not agreed to abide by the
Commissioner's recommendations and has declined to implement them.
Eight of the eleven subject institutions allow employees to use wireless
devices for sending and receiving information of business value (in
addition to brief, transitory messages).
Unless individuals store these messages on a server, or they are
automatically backed up, information on government decision making will
be irremediably lost.
The Commissioner recommended that the Act be amended to include a duty
to document decisions, with appropriate sanctions for non-compliance.
SOURCE: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada
For further information:
The report is available on the OIC website.
For more information:
Manager, Communications and Media Relations
Office of the Information Commissioner