Teen charged in Nova Scotia government breach says he had 'no malicious intent'

The 19-year-old says he believed the documents he plucked from Nova Scotia's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act web portal were "free to just download."

19-year-old says he believed documents were 'free to just download' from province's FOIPOP web portal

The 19-year-old at the centre of a privacy breach on the province's freedom-of-information portal says he thought the documents he downloaded were public information. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The 19-year-old facing a criminal charge for downloading files from Nova Scotia's freedom-of-information portal sits in a sofa in his parent's living room in Halifax.

His bedroom is upstairs. That's where police found him sleeping when 15 officers raided the family home last Wednesday morning.

His demeanour is polite, almost meek. When he speaks, his voice is quiet. He could easily pass for younger than 19.  

"Computers have been a part of me for a very long time," he said.

The teen has been charged with "unauthorized use of a computer," which carries a possible 10-year prison sentence, for downloading approximately 7,000 freedom-of-information releases.

On Friday, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said the person who downloaded the documents 'stole' the information. (Canadian Press)

The vast majority of these files were already publicly available, and had been redacted prior to release to remove any personal information. 

But about 250 of the reports were prepared for Nova Scotians requesting their own government files. These un-redacted records contained sensitive personal information, and were never intended for public release.   

The government has faced continued questions since it announced the privacy breach last week.

On Friday, the premier accused the teenager of "stealing" the information.

But in an interview with CBC News, the 19-year-old says he thought he was downloading an archive of public information that was supposed to be freely available on the internet.

Anonymity

The teenager has not been formally arraigned on the single charge, so his name is not yet public.

At the family's request, CBC News is granting him anonymity because of his hope the charge will be dropped and his reputation preserved.

"I don't know if I'll be able to get a job if this gets on my record.… I don't know what my future will be like," he said.

Early talent

Some of the teenager's earliest memories involve playing with MS Paint on the family computer.

When he was around eight, he remembered playing around with the HTML of the Google search page, making the coloured letters spell out his name.

Around the same time, his Grade 3 class adopted an animal at a shelter, receiving an electronic adoption certificate.

That led to a discovery on the classroom computer.

"The website had a number at the end, and I was able to change the last digit of the number to a different number and was able to see a certificate for someone else's animal that they adopted," he said. "I thought that was interesting."

Researching teachers

The teenager's current troubles arose because he used the same trick on Nova Scotia's freedom-of-information portal, downloading about 7,000 freedom-of-information requests.

He says his interest stemmed from the government's recent labour troubles with teachers.

"I wanted more transparency on the teachers' dispute," he said.

After a few searches for teacher-related releases on the provincial freedom-of-information portal, he didn't find what he was looking for.

"A lot of them were just simple questions that people were asking. Like some were information about Syrian refugees. Others were about student grades and stuff like that," he said.

The teen said a single line of code was all it took to get the information. (CBC)

So instead, he decided to download all the files to search later.

"I decided these are all transparency documents that the government is displaying. I decided to download all of them just to save," he said.

He says it took a single line of code and a few hours of computer time to copy 7,000 freedom-of-information requests.

"I didn't do anything to try to hide myself. I didn't think any of this would be wrong if it's all public information. Since it was public, I thought it was free to just download, to save," he said.

Passion for archiving

It wasn't the first website the 19-year-old had saved for general interest.

He estimates he has around 30 terabytes of online data on hard drives in his home, the equivalent of "millions" of web pages.

He usually copies online forums such as 4chan and Reddit, where posts are either quickly erased or can become difficult to locate.

"I preserve things, I archive the internet. I have history on my computer, and all of that should be saved and preserved," he said.

His mother vouches for her son's passion for organizing, even cataloguing his late grandfather's VHS collection of home video and recordings off the television.

"I don't think he did anything wrong. He's a good boy and he saved stuff."

Police raid

The family was going through its morning routine last Wednesday when the police banged on the front door.

The mother says she, her husband, and two of her kids were corralled in the living room.

"They read us our rights and told us not to talk," she said.

"Our daughter, she was really traumatized, really bad — brought her to tears, the way they conducted this," said the father.

She says at one point there were 15 officers in the home.

"People were going into the kitchen, were going into the dining room, going upstairs. They went into the basement. They were [traipsing] through the house, everywhere," the mother said.

Supt. Jim Perrin said last week police rarely charge people with unauthorized use of a computer, but that it was the right offence in this case. (CBC)

She says the family is still working through the mess they left behind.

"They rifled through everything. They turned over mattresses, they took drawers and emptied out drawers, they went through personal papers, pictures," she said. "It was totally devastating and traumatic."

She says police seized her son's computers, plus her husband's cellphone and work computers, which has left him unable to do his job.

They also seized her younger son's desktop computer, after he was arrested on the street walking to high school.

Officers took her 13-year-old daughter to question her in a police car.

"My little ones are asking, 'Will I be able to get a job because we were arrested?'" she said.

Next steps

The 19-year-old accused says he's been passing his time watching TV and doing paper crosswords because he's not allowed to access the internet.

He's worried he'll lose his academic year.

"I've been feeling kind of sick the whole past week. Haven't been eating much. Haven't been doing much at all," he said.

He says this is his first time he's ever been in this kind of trouble.

"I have never been in the legal system ever in my life.… This is the first time for me. All this is first, and it's all new, and I don't know what to do."

The teenager says since he was downloading public records off a public website, it all feels unfair.

"I just had no malicious intent and I shouldn't be charged for this," he said.