Saturday, March 18, 2006

Government's computer privacy problems a warning for you

VICTORIA - Consider the B.C. government's recent problems in protecting private information and keeping its computer networks secure a wake-up call.
It's easy to let things like privacy protection slide. What's the harm if government, or business, has some information about you stashed in files? You've got nothing to hide.
And not long ago that might have even been an OK attitude. The technology of the day made it hard to gather information, and even harder to pull it all together. The sheer challenge of the task helped protect your privacy.
Not any more. Computer advances means it's technically easy to compile vast and detailed files on anyone. Where you shop, what you buy, medical treatment, personal problems, books you read, what you earn, how quickly you pay your bills.
The potential loss of privacy, and damage, has become much greater than ever before.
And the protection has not kept pace with the increased risk.
The government demonstrated that this month as it admitted to two information management failures with privacy implications.
First the Vancouver Sun was contacted by a man who gone to a provincial government surplus sale and spent a few dollars each for a big box of computer tapes.
He checked them out, and there was information on 77,000 British Columbians. Names, social insurance numbers, medical histories, contacts with the government. Information about people who were HIV positive. People who had reported their child had been sexually assaulted, or sought help for their own personal problems, all their information available.
The purchaser turned them over to the newspaper, which in turn secured them and passed them on to government.
But what if it had been someone else? Identity theft - gathering enough basic information to get credit cards and bank accounts in other peoples' names - would be simple. Blackmail possible. Simply putting the information up on the Internet for all to see an option.
Days later the NDP revealed that hackers had broken into the government computer system, and seized control of 78 computers for two months before they were detected. They loaded porn movies on to the computers, apparently using the government's network as part of a pay-for-porn business.
Sorry, says Mike de Jong, the minister responsible. We won't sell surplus tapes and hard drives any more. And at least the hackers didn't go looking for private files, he said.
There's reason to be worried about this specific case. The auditor general warned last year that the government's computer security systems were flawed.
But there will always be a risk that human error or criminal attacks will compromise security. Hackers and security experts struggle to see who stays one step ahead. Sometimes the bad guys will win.
Just as there is always a drive by organizations to want to gather information, and then to use it. Stewart Brand is credited with the observation that 'information wants to be free.' Information also wants to be used.
Users often resist privacy requirements. There's pressure within the B.C. government for legislative amendments this session that would reduce privacy protection.
So what's your defence?
For starters, your own vigilance about surrendering personal information. Canadian and B.C. privacy laws require organizations to get your consent before gathering and sharing personal information.
But application is lax, and the public inattentive. Most of us signed up for loyalty cards of one kind or another, and checked the little box that says we accept the companies privacy policy. But we don't read that policy, which gives the company the right to share our personal information with other corporations, and store it in the U.S.
We also need to be able to count the independent watchdogs that are charged with protecting our interests, like B.C.'s auditor general and the information and privacy commissioner.
But both offices have been starved of needed funds by the Liberal government, despite rising challenges and workloads.
Privacy matters. And we are placing it at risk.
Footnote: The Liberal government cut the Information and Privacy Commissioner's budget by 35 per cent in their first term. Increases have still left it office with less money in real dollars today than it had in 2001, despite a 24-per-cent increase in complaints in 2005 alone.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Government's fight to keep polluter facts secret wrong

VICTORIA - Why in the world would the B.C. government want to cover up pollution violations in the province?
The public used to get regular reports on the big polluters in the province - the companies and government organizations that violated their permits for discharging wastes.
It didn't seem a big deal. Once every six months or so the government would release a report on the major polluters over the previous period. If companies or public organizations were releasing more waste than allowed under their environmental permits, the public knew about it. The violators had to explain.
Obviously the government has to track the information. Companies and municipalities get permits setting limits on the waste they dump in the air, water and on to the land. There are penalties for going over the limits.
If government is actually enforcing the regulations, it has to gather the emissions data to be sure the rules are being obeyed.
Violations were regularly made public, just as you can walk down to your local courthouse and see who has broken other laws.
But the Campbell government quit providing the reports months after they were elected. And now they are fighting to keep the violations secret, demanding an extraordinary amount of money to provide information that used to be readily available.
The Sierra Legal Defence Fund has been trying for more than two years to get the facts from government.
But the most open and accountable government in Canada, as Gordon Campbell likes to call his administration, would prefer that the polluters' identities stays secret.
If Sierra Legal wants to get the information, the government now says, it will have to pay $173,000 to cover the costs of gathering it, and photocopying 52,000 pages. (Which suggest there is a whole of pollution violations, I suppose.)
Information Commissioner David Loukidelis is investigating, and has the power to reduce or eliminate the charges.
But it's bizarre that is is happening.
The government issues waste permits. Companies get approval to dump so many tonnes of particulate in the air, or so much waste into a river. That's part of a functioning economy, and the limits provide needed protection.
The reports simply cited those organizations that violated their permits - companies that sent too much waste into the sky, municipalities that allowed excess sewage into the rivers.
It's easy to see why keeping that information secret is in the offenders' interests.
But it's hard to see how it's in the public interest. The people who live in a community, or rely on a resource, should know if the local permits for air and water pollution are being violated.
And there's a practical argument for releasing the reports. The publicity is a proven incentive for organizations to clean up their act.
Environment Minister Barry Penner apparently doesn't agree. It wasn't always fair to report on violations, he says, and it sometimes made it harder to get people to obey the law.
That sounds a little weird. Not many companies or municipalities would want to be publicly identified as pollution violators. That threat would encourage efforts to live within their permits.
But even if Penner sees no value in issuing reports voluntarily, that's not an argument for keeping the facts secret when people try and get answers.
The public has a right to know. If a regional district is routinely dumping more sewage into rivers than its allowed, or a company is exceeding its permitted levels for air pollution, why would that be a government secret?
It's hard to see how a government can place itself in such a dumb position.
We are talking about questions of fact. Which organization, companies or government, put out more waste than allowed under their operating permits?
Keeping that secret - or charging ridiculous fees for the information - hurts the public interest, and aligns the government with polluters.
And that's a very strange and wrong choice for a government that hopes to be re-elected in three years.
Footnote: The Liberals were great fans of Freedom of Information requests in opposition, filing about 15 requests a week searching - legitimately - for NDP failures. "Government information belongs to the people, not to government," Gordon Campbell wrote. "All citizens must have timely, effective and affordable access to the documents government keeps." But access has steadily been eroded since the 2001 election.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

HEU deal a milestone in public sector talks

VICTORIA - Things are looking good for the government's bid to reach quick labour settlements.
Reaching agreements with teachers and nurses will still be tough. And more bumps like the one created this week by the generous deal with doctors are still ahead.
But the progress so far, especially in reaching deals with the Hospital Employees' Union and the BC Medical Association, has set the stage for more settlements.
It's a change from the wretched labour-management relations of the Liberals' first term, and a vindication of Finance Minister Carole Taylor's plan for a $1-billion fund to encourage quick deals.
The count is up to 11 tentative agreements as I write this, covering about 75,000 workers. The latest is a contract for about 38,000 health sector workers.
That's a big deal. The workers, mostly represented by the Hospital Employees' Union, were battered and betrayed by the Liberals. (Gordon Campbell specifically promised the union that he would respect their contracts, then gutted them, clearing the way for mass firings and wage cuts.) Talks were made more difficult by legislation barring the union from negotiating job security protection.
Despite the hurdles, the parties reached a deal. The government gets a four-year contract, allowing some needed stability (and talking the contract term past the 2010 Olympics and the next election).
And the union got a decent wage increase and some job protection. The average wage increase will be about 2.6 per cent a year, enough to keep up with inflation. The minimum will be about 8.5 per cent over four years, but some people - in high demand categories - will get up to 32 per cent.
The deal fits within the government's wage mandate, which allowed for average increases of 2.7 per cent a year, and reflects its desire to see wage increases reflect market conditions.
But it couldn't have been sold to HEU members on its own, particularly after so many had seen wages cut.
That's where the $1-billion bonus fund for unions that reach deals before their old ones expire comes into play. The money translates into about $3,800 for each of the 300,000 public sector employees.
The HEU has negotiated a $3,700 signing bonus from the fund, plus another $500 for "past skills enhancements." For an employee at the low end of wage scales, that's a one-time payment equal to 16 per cent of salary. There's also renewed limits on future job losses to contracting out.
The deal came just days after the much richer BCMA deal that some observers feared would disrupt other talks. All doctors got a 10.4-per-cent fee increase over four years. Family physicians - more than half the total - will get 19.1 per cent. It was much more than other unions were being offered, and produced some angry responses.
But the BCMA deal may have helped. It set a range for settlement. And even more usefully the deal, which won't be ratified until May, forced Taylor to back off her claim that the $1 billion would disappear March 31 unless contracts were in place. There's room for flexibility if an agreement is almost there, she has now conceded.
The next challenge is an agreement with the BCGEU. The union has walked away from talks, but the chances for settlement should still be good. The two sides appear far apart - the union apparently wants a 10-per-cent increase over three years, the employer 8.5 per cent over four years. and contracting out remains a major issue.
But given the other settlements, and the advantages for both sides in reaching an agreement within the next two weeks, there's reason for optimism.
A BCGEU deal would help the government in difficult talks with nurses and teachers. The pattern for bargaining has been set, and the government can argue the need for fairness across the board.
The government's strategy - and its recognition that the public was tired of imposed settlements - has been working, and momentum is on the side of negotiated contracts.
Footnote: The teachers' strike last fall was a turning point for the government. The public support for the BCTF shocked the government and sent the message that continued rough tactics wouldn't be tolerated. Vince Ready reports March 31 on a new way of bargaining teachers' contracts.
But the government might argue that it's reaching these deals because it has established a willingness to impose contracts on its own terma.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Why we cared for Luna, and what we can learn

VICTORIA - Poor old Luna, just wanting to play, and ending up killed by a tug's propeller.
There was something sweet about the whale's fondness for contact with people. He had a much higher opinion of us than I do most of the time.
Maybe that's one of the reasons a lot of people liked the idea of Luna so much. The whale offered a badly needed vote of approval for our species, from a creature that seemed to embody childlike innocence and physical power. He could have eaten us, but instead played.
We know how messed up we are, how much havoc we wreak and how much harm we ignore. We're know we've made life tougher for the Orcas
But the whale still thought we were good enough to hang out with, poking up beside boats and sniffing at peoples' dogs, coming close for a head rub.
Not normal for a whale, of course. They're supposed to swim with other whales. That's important for them, and for their species. The U.S. government declared Puget Sound Orcas an endangered species last month. The loss of a young male is significant.
Some groups wanted Luna captured and hauled down by truck from Gold River to southern Vancouver Island, and then re-united with his pod. They say his death shows it was a mistake not to take action much earlier, before Luna had become so used to contact with people. Springer, another wayward Orca, was successfully reunited with his pod in a similar process.
Maybe. I'm not so sure.
There was no guarantee that the plan would work, or that Luna would survive. If he was released in southern waters, and failed to start acting more like a normal whale, he would be a serious menace to the heavier boat traffic. The plan then was to capture him and send him off to an aquarium.
And who knows why Luna ended up alone in Nootka Sound. Maybe he was shunned, and for some good biological reason - a recognition by the other whales of some deficiency that made him a destructive genetic force.
Maybe he just ddn't get along with his family. (Another reason some people may have been so fond of L-98, as Luna was properly known.)
Maybe he was just strange, the way some people are. Rent Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, a documentary about a researcher who prefers the company of Alaskan grizzlies to people. He's a strange man. And he ends up eaten by the bears. Kind of a species-reversed version of Luna.
The DFO and others are calling for an investigation into how the problem of Luna was handled.
It's reasonable idea. There may be something to learn by looking back at how the strange story unfolded. Luna showed up in Nootka Sound as a one-year-old, almost five years ago, and soon began coming into contact with boats.
The process of figuring out what to do got tied up in mistrust of the DFO, scientific disagreement and the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation's belief that Luna carried the spirit of a revered chief, who died around the time the whale showed up. The delays made successful reunification less likely. So instead the First Nation was paid to try and look out for Luna.
A modest investigation, with input from everyone involved, might ensure we do better if this happens again.
But I was camping on the weekend, just south of Campbell River with a gang of kids. We went for a walk, brilliant sun off the new snow, the ocean on side and a pond on the other. Truly beautiful. And as we came through some trees, we saw a Trumpeter Swan on the thin ice of the pond, its neck broken and its head almost dragging on the ice.
Perhaps an eagle had attacked, or the swan had landed awkwardly on the unexpected ice - we didn't know. It staggered a few steps, fell. Rose again. Walked a few steps, fell and stayed down, feathers ruffling in the breeze.
Everything dies. Our fondness for them doesn't change that.
Footnote: it's faintly troubling how much we were moved by Luna, and how little we are moved by the plight of people in real suffering. About $500,000 in donations was pledged to help relocate the whale, and the government spent a great deal on top of that. Anyone who has tried to seek donations knows just how difficult it is to raise that much money to help people.