Personal email and government work should never mix, says Nova Scotia watchdog
Government records not properly secured, search for info not easy on outside servers
Nova Scotia's information watchdog wants any provincial and municipal employees paid by taxpayers to be prohibited from using personal cellphones, tablets and email accounts for work-related tasks — unless those tools can be set up to retain and store records automatically.
Information and privacy commissioner Catherine Tully issued new guidelines on Tuesday warning public employees not to use personal emails or send texts if it involves their jobs.
She said the policy is needed to safeguard government records.
"We do have quite a few people complaining that records are missing when they make an access request, or believing that somebody has used personal email," she said.
"In the last three months, on at least one occasion, we did have evidence that somebody used personal email. Not to get around the law — just that they did public body business using personal email."
Tully said there was no evidence to suggest anyone had used a cellphone or tablet as a way to circumvent the law or hide sensitive material from access to information requests, but she's worried about the increase in the number of times she asks for information and the answer is, "No records exist."
Pattern of records not existing
"It raises a bit of a worry that there's starting to be a pattern of more and more of those kinds of answers," she said. "Is there a growing practice of not recording things that maybe should be recorded? I don't know."
Nova Scotia's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act has largely remained unchanged since it was legislated 23 years ago.
That means Tully can only act on specific complaints tied to request for access to information — and an overall review of how the province is dealing with the law is not within her power.
She's working on amendments to propose to the McNeil government and thought it was a good time to make the request because a provincial election may be around the corner.
Inappropriate email use
Tully is taking her cue from other provinces, as well as the federal government, that have also grappled with the use of personal devices by staff for work-related communications.
Her counterpart in British Columbia conducted a large investigation last year into a number of ministers' offices and discovered that "emails were being deleted and that the office was actually actively avoiding access to information requests," said Tully.
Tully felt the law in Nova Scotia may similarly be threatened by a lack of policy when it comes to personal cellphone use. She said B.C. plans to amend their freedom of information laws to enshrine a duty to document key decisions.