1,000 days and counting: Nova Scotia’s path to restoring online access to government transparency

Nova Scotia's FOIPOP website has been shut down following a data breach in March 2018. Jeremy Keefe / Global News

Nova Scotia’s online platform allowing citizens to file freedom of information requests is still not available Tuesday, marking 1,000 days since the website was taken offline.

The site is meant to facilitate online requests under Nova Scotia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP), a piece of legislation that allows journalists, academics, businesses, activists and any other Canadians to obtain government information that is normally withheld from the public.

Some of the stories that were obtained through FOIPOP requests include the province’s decision to grant the majority of COVID-19 exemption requests earlier this year, details on inspections about a crane that would later collapse in downtown Halifax, and the decision by multiple ministers to use private email accounts for government business despite rules to the contrary.

The province once had a similar online 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.

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Read more: N.S. Liberal leadership candidates agree on updating FOIPOP legislation but not specific changes

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 has 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.

The re-launch of the site has been repeatedly delayed.

Click to play video: 'It’s ‘more important than ever’ for government to protect data: privacy commissioner' It’s ‘more important than ever’ for government to protect data: privacy commissioner
It’s ‘more important than ever’ for government to protect data: privacy commissioner – Jun 5, 2019

A tender for the new website was issued in May 2019, with the Nova Scotia government telling Global News at the start of 2020 that it would launch the site sometime in the spring.

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That was then pushed back to the end of 2020.

Recently, it has been delayed even further to this winter, or sometime between Dec. 21 and March 20, 2021.

In a statement, the province said it is in the “final stages” of launching the new online system and that the FOIPOP system is still fully functional.

“Throughout 2020 we worked on the implementation of the new online system, including rigorous security testing, to ensure Nova Scotians can safely and securely submit access to information requests online,” said Tracy Barron, a Nova Scotia spokesperson.

“We reached a milestone in August 2020 with the internal case management going live. We are in the final stages of the public-facing site being readied for launch this winter.”

READ MORE: N.S. information commissioner says office legally hamstrung, short on resources

Data breach

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.

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“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.

Read more: Nova Scotia re-launches FOIPOP website after 152 days of being offline

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.

Halifax Regional Police arrested a 19-year-old on April 11, 2018, after searching his home, but three weeks later issued a news release saying they would not charge the teen, as “the 19-year-old who was arrested … did not have intent to commit a criminal offence.”

Halifax police said the young man was arrested under a rarely used section of the Criminal Code that prohibits the unauthorized use of a computer with fraudulent intent.

The teen later told CBC that his arrest had been carried out by approximately 15 officers.

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Click to play video: 'Police will not charge 19-year-old involved in Nova Scotia data breach, close investigation' Police will not charge 19-year-old involved in Nova Scotia data breach, close investigation
Police will not charge 19-year-old involved in Nova Scotia data breach, close investigation – May 7, 2018

The police’s initial decision to charge the 19-year-old drew heavy criticism from the tech community in Canada. Critics say police “overreached” for something that is a common action in the technology field.

Search warrants indicate that a Nova Scotia civil servant told police somebody “hacked” into the province’s freedom of information website. However, internal government documents indicate that the province understood the problem to be an issue that made the website’s operating system vulnerable and that it wasn’t a malicious attack.

Read more: Nova Scotia unlikely to launch online freedom of information platform ahead of 1,000-day mark

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.

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The province said COVID-19 has affected its ability to bring the website online.

Nearly 2,000 requests are filed annually in Nova Scotia.

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