Halifax police won't charge teen arrested in Nova Scotia privacy breach

Halifax Regional Police say they won't be charging a 19-year-old man arrested last month for downloading files from Nova Scotia's freedom-of-information portal.

Police say Halifax man 'did not have intent to commit a criminal offence'

On April 11, the 19-year-old was arrested at his Halifax home where he lives with his parents. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Halifax Regional Police say they won't be charging a 19-year-old man arrested last month for downloading files from Nova Scotia's freedom-of-information portal.

Spokesperson Neera Ritcey said in an email Monday that after a thorough investigation, police determined there were no grounds to lay a charge of unauthorized use of a computer against the teen.

That charge carries a possible 10-year prison sentence. 

On April 11, the 19-year-old was arrested at his Halifax home, where he lives with his parents and siblings. In an interview with CBC News following his arrest, he said 15 officers raided the house

Hundreds notified information was accessed

Roughly 700 people were notified that their personal information was accessed by someone not authorized to have it. Premier Stephen McNeil called it stealing.

The government's freedom of information and protection of privacy portal remains offline and it's not clear when the website will be back up. The files the man allegedly accessed were publicly visible to anyone with the link. 

Halifax privacy lawyer David Fraser has been representing the 19-year-old who was arrested in the Nova Scotia privacy breach. (CBC)

Halifax privacy lawyer David Fraser has been representing the man. Fraser said he's pleased no charges will be laid.

"It's welcome news, it's news we've been hoping for three weeks now and it's nice to finally have that wrapped up," he said.

'Rhetoric' may have influenced police

Fraser said the family is still processing how the police handled the investigation and the raid on their home. He said it's unclear what information was provided to police by the province or how it was characterized. Fraser suggested it could have influenced how police proceeded.

"The rhetoric at that time was very strong, suggesting some sort of hacking, which proved not to be the case, and if that sort of rhetoric was transferred to the police it might be expected that that's the sort of response they're going to have," said Fraser.

He said police should have been told there were 11 other accesses to the information that was posted on a publicly available website with no security precautions.

'3 weeks of uncertainty'

"Had that been taken into account day on one, perhaps we wouldn't have had to spend three weeks of uncertainty," Fraser said.

He said the family has not yet had its computers returned by police, which he said can be a lengthy process. 

Fraser said the family has been touched by the public support they've received. He said a donor stepped forward to provide the father with a computer so he could continue working after the family's electronics were seized.

He said his firm donated a computer to the 19-year-old so he could continue working on his education. An online fundraiser for the 19-year-old's legal defence has now surpassed $15,000.

'Did not have intent to commit a criminal offence'

Halifax police Supt. Jim Perrin told CBC News he doesn't think police would have proceeded differently if it had known all the facts of the situation.

"When the incident was reported to the police, it was certainly believed that a criminal act had taken place," he said.

Supt. Jim Perrin said he doesn't think police would have proceeded differently if it had known all the facts of the situation. (CBC)

Perrin said the complaint came from someone at the security level of the provincial government. He said it was reported that a website was compromised and personal information was taken.

"Every case comes at us different. There's no perfect way that a case evolves. This case obviously had some significant interest because of the significant amount of personal information that was alleged to have been taken," Perrin said.

"We took some quick action after being alerted to it and over the course of the investigation, the investigators came to the decision that I'm reporting on today and I support that decision."

Perrin said the family's computers that were seized will eventually be returned, but he did not say when.

Province respects the police's decision

Internal Services Minister Patricia Arab wasn't available for an interview with CBC News, but in an emailed statement, she said "we respect this decision."

"We will continue to offer supports for those affected by this breach. Our priority from the outset has been containing the data," Arab said.

"As we go forward, we will cooperate fully with the investigation of the Nova Scotia Auditor General and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner."

Recent data breaches

The FOIPOP breach was the first of three such breaches in Nova Scotia made public within weeks of each other.

Last week, the provincial government revealed 11 other IP addresses were used to download personal documents that should not have been on the website.

Two weeks ago, officials with the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE), formerly the Halifax Regional School Board, shut down the Excel online registration system after they were told by people using it that they could see the personal information of others on the forms they were supposed to fill out.

Doug Hadley, HRCE spokesperson, said people logging on to register their children flagged the problem almost immediately.

It's still not clear how private information was made public in that case. 

With files from Jack Julian and Anjuli Patil