Nova Scotia now says its online platform allowing citizens to file freedom of information requests will launch this winter — a subtle shift in the goal it had previously told Global News, which was to have the website up by the end of the year.
The subtle shift in wording is key.
Rather than having to launch the website at some point before Dec. 31, the province now has between Dec. 21 and March 20, 2021, to bring it online.
When pressed on the change in wording and whether that meant Nova Scotia would not bring the website online by the end of the year, Service Nova Scotia declined to comment.
The new timeline means Nova Scotia is likely to blow past Dec. 29, or 1,000 days since it last had an online platform that facilitates online requests under Nova Scotia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP).
Requests are a useful tool for journalists and are routinely employed by academics, businesses and activists to obtain government information that is normally withheld from the public.
The province once had a similar system in place but it was pulled down after it was revealed that a data breach on the website had exposed 7,000 documents containing personal information such as social insurance numbers, personal addresses, child custody documents, medical information and proprietary business information.
The province partially restored its online FOIPOP system on Sept. 5, 2019, allowing Nova Scotians to once again download previously completed FOI requests.
However, it’s yet to restore the ability for Nova Scotians to “safely and securely” submit requests under the province’s access to information act online.
Instead, Nova Scotians have had to file requests by pen, paper and Canada Post mail.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Service Nova Scotia said the province is carrying out “rigorous testing” on the new request platform in order to ensure it safe and secure.
“The work has taken longer than expected but it is critical we get this right,” Sue McKeage said in an email.
“We are also testing the new system to be sure it’s user friendly and the results to date are very positive.”
The data breach of the original FOIPOP website was first detected by a worker at the Nova Scotia archives.
In an email sent on the evening of April 4, 2018, the employee attempted to re-enter a URL that linked to a released and redacted document he had previously accessed through the FOIPOP portal but mistyped the address.
“Rather than going to another redacted, released document, I ended up seeing an incoming FOIPOP request … It seems that rather than being inside the government system, which in itself is a bit of a shaky practice, the materials are out there, seemingly unprotected, on the web,” the employee said.
Provincial officials quickly jumped into action, scrambling through April 5 to find a solution.
One official wrote that the government should shut down the website “until we get a grip on things.”
With no immediate solution available, the government yanked down the website at 8:15 a.m. and it remained offline until it was partially restored 152 days later.
Reports from a pair of oversight bodies would later take the departments that oversee Nova Scotia’s IT infrastructure to task after determining “poor overall project management” and a “serious failure of due diligence” helped cause the data breach.
The province said COVID-19 has affected its ability to bring the website online.
Nearly 2,000 requests are filed annually in Nova Scotia.