Nova Scotia

Nova Scotians can finally file access-to-information requests online again

Nova Scotians can once again file access-to-information requests online, almost three years after the McNeil government pulled the plug on it following the improper access of more than 7,000 documents.

McNeil government pulled plug on system in April 2018 after 7,000 documents were improperly accessed

Internal Services Minister Patricia Arab says the new FOIPOP online portal has additional safeguards. (CBC)

Nova Scotians can, once again, file access-to-information requests online.

The new freedom of information and protection of privacy portal was launched Thursday, according to a news release issued by Service Nova Scotia, almost three years after the McNeil government pulled the plug on the system when it allowed a teenager to improperly access more than 7,000 documents.

The provincial government originally called it a security breach and had police investigate the 19-year-old man who downloaded the material. Police later decided there were no grounds to lay a charge of unauthorized use of a computer against the teen.

A 2019 investigation by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Nova Scotia concluded the provincial government was responsible for a "serious failure of due diligence" for setting up a system that could be accessed using a simple workaround technique.

"It is astounding," then-commissioner Catherine Tully said of the breaches. "And it took the combination of quite a few people doing a poor job for this to happen."

The teenager was able to access documents not intended for public release by modifying the online address for links that were in the public domain.

The material included sensitive information such as birth dates, social insurance numbers, addresses and government-services client information, all of which which should have been protected from release.

A report, filed two years ago by Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup, concluded the government failed to adequately assess and manage the "vulnerabilities" of the system.

"The Department of Internal Services did not ensure that the website was secure before using it," Pickup said at the time.

The provincial government has been working ever since to restore the system and ensure the proper safeguards were in place to protect personal information before the new site launched.

"Part of that was trying to figure out the best way to relaunch," Patricia Arab, minister of Service Nova Scotia and Internal Services, told reporters following a cabinet meeting on Thursday.

"There were a number of things that we discussed to find what was going to be the most secure option that would also give the most appropriate access to our FOI requests."

Ultimately, the government settled on splitting the operation between the portal for making applications and the disclosure portion that makes information publicly available through the open data portal. The former work is being handled by AINS Inc., with the latter work going to Socrata, which also operates the government's open data website. 

The new portal is being operated on a five-year contract worth $760,000, including a one-time implementation cost of $197,000. For comparison, the previous portal had an annual operating cost of about $244,000. 

"We really wanted to make sure that we did as many security testings as we could, that we came up with the right solutions and that we took seriously the two reports that were given to us following the breach," Arab said.

With files from Michael Gorman