Treasury Board President Tony Clement's dire warning about why the government can't release certain electronic data under access to information requests seems to have left his senior staff mystified, newly disclosed documents show.

In an interview late last year, Clement said that some database requests under the Access to Information Act can’t be released in their original electronic format because the numbers could be manipulated and "create havoc."

At the time, Clement was responding to complaints that requests for electronic data often produced records in paper form that couldn't  be scrutinized by a computer for patterns.

"That’s the balancing act that we have to have, that certain files, you don’t want the ability to create havoc by making it changeable online," he told The Canadian Press in an interview.

But emails from Clement’s senior staff show the statement left them puzzled about why their minister would make the claim.

"It’s a headscratcher for me. Any idea what the minister is referring to?" wrote one staffer after checking the morning headlines on Dec. 23.

"It’s a speculative thing, no actual occurrence to date … I can’t think of what has not been released due to this perspective," wrote another — Patrick McDermott, senior manager for open government systems at the Treasury Board secretariat. "What prompts this comment now is a mystery to me."

For several years, Clement has been touting the Harper government’s proactive online posting of federal databases for free downloading, partly to encourage businesses to mine the data for profit. Canadian corporations trail their counterparts around the world in capitalizing on so-called "big data."

'I'm a bit surprised that the [minister] would raise this' - email from Treasury Board official

The Open Data Portal now offers more than 240,000 free datasets, the vast majority from Natural Resources Canada, apparently without any concern that someone might use them to spread "falsehoods."

At the same time as pushing this data, though, federal departments have come under fire for failing to deliver individual, non-published datasets requested under the Access to Information Act in their original format, often recreating them in censored paper versions.


Requesters asking for datasets under the Access to Information Act are sometimes given paper versions instead, making it impossible to use computers to sort data. (iStock)

Departments have offered different explanations for delivering in paper format, but Clement’s comment was the first time a government official claimed the paper copies were designed to foil any statistical mischief.

"I’m a bit surprised that the [minister] would raise this — everyone in the OG (Open Government) community … is aware of the risk that data/info may be misused/applied/quoted etc. .. but that’s just the nature of the beast," McDermott wrote.

"The trick is to rebut the ‘falsification,’ not speculatively prevent it from happening in the first place."

Documents give differing version

Copies of the Treasury Board emails and other related materials were released under the Access to Information Act.

The background documents give a different explanation for refusing to release some electronic datasets in their original format: cost.

Some datasets contain details such as personal information that must be removed under the law, and recreating a dataset in a new digital version with the problematic information removed can be time-consuming.

"Would be costly to run a parallel system and create new version of documents with severances," says one email. "Our ATIP group has indicated if they had an actual data sheet with no severances — they would release."

Regulations under the Access to Information Act do not guarantee that someone making a request receives records in the preferred format. Instead, the head of each institution can determine that converting the information to the preferred format is unreasonable, say the documents.

A spokeswoman for Treasury Board did not comment directly on the released emails from Clement’s senior staff.

"Data and information held by the government of Canada must meet privacy, confidentiality and security standards before it can be released in open formats," Lisa Murphy said in a statement.

"Datasets must also undergo basic quality checks before being released by departments, to ensure that data meets release criteria and global standards for open data."

"It is not possible for the government of Canada to release every dataset in its inventory on, as some do not meet these criteria and standards," she wrote.

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