Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ben Stewart stumbles on another privacy breach, this time linked to U.S. Homeland Security

So is poor Ben Stewart being kept in the dark by others in government, or is he keeping the public in the dark.
Stewart is the minister for citizen services and responsible for, among other things, the protection of the personal information every British Columbian has to share with government.
This week, the Times Colonist revealed another security breach.
They asked Stewart about it Thursday and he revealed little.
Someone in the Housing Ministry appeared to have sent sensitve personal information to an outside using government e-mail, he told reporter Rob Shaw.
"They were e-mailing files inappropriately from the office to another person," Stewart said. "We don't exactly know who this other individual is, but it's believed they could be in the United States."
"At least three" British Columbians have been sent letters warning their confidential information was compromised.
The Times Colonist report ended with a note inviting those who had received the letters or others with information to call the reporter. (The first story is here.)
And within 24 hours, the government revealed Stewart's version was, to put it kindly, incomplete.
On Friday, the government said the employee is accused of e-mailing the personal data to a U.S. border guard in Washington State - that is, an agent of the far-reaching Homeland Security apparatus. The government also believes the B.C. government employee and Homeland Security guard had a personal relationship. (The second story is here.)
So what the explanation for Stewart's public claim that the government didn't know who received the information, only that "it's believed they could be in the United States."
Since the next day the next day the government revealed it knew who the information had gone into and the person's job.
Was Stewart kept in the dark about the breach, which was discovered in September?
Or did he decide not to be open and accountable with the public?
Not just with the public.
The government identified the breach in September. It didn't notify the people at risk until November. And it didn't advise Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis, the legislative officer charged with investigating such incidents, until this month.
What's in the files? The Housing Ministry handles rent assistance for thousands of British Columbians; income assistance and disability benefits for thousands more. It runs gambling, so has files on lottery distributors, casino employees and crime investigations.
And now a U.S. border guard and perhaps Homeland Security have some of the same information.
There is another question for Stewart. The government knew about this beach at the same time he was offering misleading and incomplete answers about another privacy breach uncovered by Shaw and reporter Lindsay Kines that affected 1,400 British Columbians.
The government had known about that breach, and the risk of identity theft and fraud, since April - before the election.
But the information was kept secret, even from the people at risk, until November.
Stewart initially said he had learned of the breach two weeks earlier, leaving the impression the government had learned at the same time.
Only when the RCMP contradicted the claim did he provide more complete information.
Open and accountable government?
Or catch us if you can?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Haida, B.C. hope to cash in on carbon credits

From Copenhagen to Haida Gwaii, climate change is in the news and bringing big economic shifts.
The B.C. government has just signed "reconciliation protocols" with the Haida and six coastal First Nations.
They agreements are like treaties-lite, an effort to bring some certainty to development and economic benefits to the communities. The big obstacles to treaties - land, cash, finality - are left to be negotiated later. It?s a reasonable approach.
It was striking that both protocols included commitments on "carbon-offset sharing" between the province and First Nations. Agreements are supposed to be in place within 10 months.
You can draw a pretty direct line from the coastal communities to the Copenhagen climate summit, where there is support for a cap-and-trade system on emissions.
That's where B.C. and First Nations figure there is money to be made. Cap and trade is a big part of the provincial government's bid to reduce greenhouse gases by one-third by 2020.
It might sound a little, well, tedious.
But it's likely going to cost you money, so why not pay attention?
The goal is to let the market drive innovations that reduce greenhouse gases.
But it starts with government setting all the rules.
It's straightforward in theory. The government, or a group of governments, would set greenhouse-gas emission caps for economic sectors and individual companies. The caps would be reduced each year in line with overall reduction targets for the country or province.
So Paul's Homegrown Tomato Greenhouse might start with a government-allocated cap of 2,500 tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions a year, based on the natural gas and electricity to keep the tomatoes cozy.
But I might decide to install heat-retaining curtains for use at night and on really cloudy days. They could reduce my use of gas and cut emissions by 500 tonnes.
Under the cap-and-trade system, I could then sell my unused emission allowance to some other business that needed to exceed its cap by the same amount. We'd negotiate a price and all would be well.
Companies that wanted to produce more greenhouse gases - perhaps to expand their businesses - could. They would have just have to buy the offsets from someone reducing emissions.
Overall, greenhouses gas production would fall as caps were reduced. Companies would be encouraged to invest in greater efficiency and new processes, because they could sell their emission allowances to others.
As the caps got lower, the market value of emission allowances would climb and the incentive to cut greenhouse gas production would increase.
In the real world, it all gets much messier. In setting caps, governments can provide big advantages or big penalties to specific sectors and companies.
And calculating and verifying emission reductions is tricky. If Paul's Tomatoes are tasteless and I'm going out of business anyway, closing the greenhouse and selling the emission credits to an oilsands company that wants to produce more greenhouse gases isn't really reducing greenhouse gases.
It's even trickier when it comes to the kind of forest carbon offsets envisioned in the recent deals with First Nations. Plants, as we learned in Grade 9, take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Trees store the carbon in the wood. If they burn or rot, the carbon dioxide is released.
If you cut them down and make two by fours, the timber still stores carbon. But sawmill waste, stumps and branches all release carbon dioxide.
So if the province and the Haida decide not to log forests, they reduce emissions. Under cap and trade, they can sell the allowance to the highest bidder.
But the calculations are complex. They depend on how efficient the harvest and replanting would have been and the age of the forest, even how fast replacement trees would have grown.
We are entering a new world and the rules - which bring big financial benefits and penalties - are being written on the fly.
I'll look at more at the forest potential in a future column.
Footnote: B.C. is already experimenting with carbon credits and the greenhouse example is based on a real project. The curtains cut emissions by 500 tonnes. The Pacific Carbon Trust, a new Crown corporation paid something like $12,000 to the company. It then resold the credits to government and a couple of businesses that want to offset their carbon emissions.