Friday, November 27, 2009

Minister looks clued out on privacy breach

Poor Ben Stewart. Up until the last days of the legislative session, most people didn’t even know he was in cabinet.
Now he’s a symbol of bungling.
Stewart, Westside-Kelowna MLA, is the minister of citizens’ services. He’s responsible, among other things, for the protection of the huge amounts of personal information citizens share — often involuntarily — with government.
And right now, it appears he isn’t doing a good job.
This all starts back in April, which is the root of the government’s problem.
The RCMP commercial crime squad got a search warrant for a government employee’s home. They were working with ICBC’s special investigation unit, which handles cases of fraudulent drivers’ licences and identity cards.
In the home, they found government files on 1,400 British Columbians that the employee had taken home from work. Names, addresses, birth dates, social insurance numbers, health numbers and information on income. As Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis noted, the kind of information that makes it easy for criminals to get fake credit cards or commit identity frauds.
The RCMP notified the government right away (before, it’s worth noting, the election).
Up to this point, the only concern was whether safeguards were adequate. A minister can’t be held accountable if an employee steps out of bounds.
But from then on, the government acted incompetently.
It wasn’t until this month — seven months after being notified that peoples’ privacy had been breached and that they were vulnerable to fraud — that the government sent letters notifying the people that they should be on guard. (That was bungled too; some letters were misaddressed and sent to the wrong people, adding a second privacy breach.)
It was also not until this month that the employee was fired.
And the government never did voluntarily reveal the breach. Reporters from the Times Colonist learned of the letters and broke the story.
Even then, Stewart was less than open and, in fact, misleading. He said he had learned of the breach about two weeks earlier, omitting the fact the government had known since May.
And he said the RCMP discovered the files as part of an “unrelated investigation.”
But an investigation into fraud hardly seems unrelated to a trove of confidential information.
Stewart also failed to reveal that a second employee had been fired in connection with the breach. The Times Colonist reporters uncovered that fact as well. Stewart would not say what job the person had, but she apparently worked in the Public Service Agency — the lead human resources service for 30,000 government employees.
Stewart continued to flounder. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, provide basic information about the events to reporters or in response to MLAs’ questions.
And while he said he had ordered a complete investigation weeks ago, on Thursday he said there were still no terms of reference for the review. That is simply not competent management.
It was an apt way for the Liberals to finish a difficult legislative session.
It raises three questions.
Why did the government wait seven months to notify 1,400 people their privacy had been compromised and they were at risk of credit fraud and identity theft? (The RCMP checked about 10 per cent of the files and concluded no fraud had yet taken place; but the information could have been sold or passed on long before then.)
Why was Stewart kept in the dark for seven months?
And why do ministers put up with this? Stewart is no dolt. He founded and grew Quails’ Gate Winery and has an impressive resumé, but he’s been left looking like a bungler.
One clue lies in how Stewart was advised, belatedly, of the breach. It wasn’t his deputy, or security officials. It was the Public Affairs Bureau staff, the governments’ PR arm, which finally told the minister. No one is saying how long the PAB staffers had the information.
It’s part of a pattern. Take the wildly inaccurate pre-election budget deficit and the broken promise on the HST. Look back on a session where cabinet ministers refused to answer basic questions about everything from health care to Olympic tickets.
When spin triumphs over openness and substance, bad things ultimately happen.
Perhaps Stewart, and other ministers, will decide it’s time to change course.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Stewart should take responsibility and resign

So, when Citizens' Services Minister Ben Stewart learned — seven months late — that a government employee already being investigated for fraud had been caught with confidential information on 1,400 British Columbians from ministry files, who tells him?
Not his deputy, or officials responsible for privacy or from the ministry involved.
A Public Affairs Bureau staffer brought the minister up to date. How long did the branch responsible for the government's messaging know? That's still a secret.
Rob Shaw and Lindsay Kines from the Times Colonist have been reporting on the issue.
The newspaper argues in an editorial today that Stewart should resign.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Torture inquiry needed to get at truth

The federal Conservatives have crossed into a shameful place.
Career diplomat Richard Colvin came forward, at personal cost, to give evidence that Afghans detained by Canadian Forces and turned over to their own government were tortured.
The Conservatives' response was to attack him personally, rather than deal with the serious allegations.
Colvin is an unlikely whistleblower. He was the second most senior Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan, working there for 18 months as an intelligence officer. He was promoted to a similar post in Canada's Washington embassy. The man that Colvin replaced in Afghanistan was killed by a suicide bomber.
Based on his work in the country, Colvin concluded that Canada was handing over prisoners to the Afghan security forces knowing that they would almost certainly be tortured. He raised the threat of torture repeatedly with senior officials in government and the military.
That's the testimony he gave before the Commons Committee on Justice and Human Rights.
Colvin could be wrong. There might be good reasons to reject his assessment.
But the reaction of Conservative MPs was surreal. They rejected the need for an inquiry to get the facts.
And they attacked Colvin, claiming he was gullible, a dim dupe who didn't really have any idea about how to do his job, who was helping the Taliban and undermining Canada's troops. The MPs had no evidence to support their attacks and no firsthand knowledge of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.
That did not stop them from denouncing Colvin and rejecting his testimony.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay set the depressingly low tone. "Hearsay," he complained. Anyone Canadian Forces picked up and handed over to Afgahn security forces could only be Taliban, and thus expected to lie about being tortured.
For MacKay, torture does not happen unless a Canadian diplomat is watching. Anyone who suggests otherwise is at worst an enemy sympathizer, at best a stupid dupe.
The premise is ridiculous. Afghan police aren't going to invite spectators to torture.
Worse, it has come out that MacKay and the government knew people were likely being tortured. Even in the last year, the government stopped transferring prisoners to Afghan authorities on three occasions because of concerns about torture and abuse.
Colvin's evidence suggests that for years - and indeed before the Conservatives were elected - Canadian forces were handing over prisoners knowing that, at least, they might be tortured.
Some people writing letters to the editor have suggested that it shouldn't matter if the people Canada's soldiers apprehend are tortured. They are probably guilty of something, the writers' suggest, and it's not our problem if they are beaten, face electric shocks or their families' lives are threatened.
Morally weak, I'd argue.
And pragmatically, a position with two very bad implications for Canadians.
First, there's the matter of war crimes. Torture, and handing people over to be tortured, are the kind of things that can land people in a courtroom in The Hague, answering for crimes against humanity.
Second, there is the increased risk for all Canadians - military, aid workers and diplomats - in Afghanistan. We are striving to win the support and trust of average Afghan citizens, considering it critical to progress.
If we hand over a son to be tortured - a person who has not been convicted of anything - then a family, or a village, become our enemies. Our soldiers are in greater danger.
Colvin said he had reported his concerns about torture as widely as he could, despite efforts to suppress them. His warnings began in May 2006 and continued for 18 months.
Through that period, former defence minister Gordon O'Connor, current Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted that they were confident none of the prisoners captured by Canadians were being tortured.
Canadians need to know if that was true. If information was being suppressed, they need to know why, and by whom.
And given the government's response to Colvin, only a public inquiry will provide the answers.
Footnote: Harper skipped question period on Monday, the first chance opposition MPs would have had to question him on Colvin's schedule. He gave priority to a photo op with Canada's lacrosse team.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Salmon farm class-action suit survives a B.C. challenge

It's tough to keep up with all the action on the salmon farm issue, but the proposed class-action suit by the Kwicksutaineuk/Ah-Kwa-Mish First Nation is worth watching.
The First Nation is asserting fishing rights in the Broughton Archipelago. And it's arguing the provincial government is hurting the interests of members by allowing salmon farms, which it says hurt wild salmon stocks.
There is a long way to go before the court approves the class action suit, let alone delivers a judgment on the issue.
But the province lost a preliminary bid to have the suit tossed in a B.C. Supreme Court ruling here.
The judgment notes the supporting materials for the bid to certify a class action include an affadavit from Fred Whoriskey, who will provide evidence for the First Nation.
The name might be familiar. In 2007, the government appointed Bill Smart, the special prosecutor in the Glen Clark case, to act as a special prosecutor on a file involving allegations that sea lice from salmon farms were damaging wild stocks. Smart concluded the farms were likely damaging wild stocks. He recommended against proceeding because it was unclear if their actions were against the law. His key expert was, yes, Fred Whoriskey. You can read more in these two columns from 2007.

By the by, I highly recommended the Recent Judgments section of the B.C. Superior Courts website. Judgments from the B.C. Supreme Court of Appeal are posted almost daily. Browsing them offers a direct view of the justice system - you'll marvel at how much of the courts' time is taken with divorces and insurance claims - and a lot of useful bits of information. (I learned, for example, that a paramedic injured in a crash estimated his continuing income, with overtime, would have been over $100,000 a year.)
You'll also be impressed, I think, with how sensible the judgments are in criminal cases.