When will Nova Scotia's FOI portal be fixed? Government doesn't have that info

The government’s chief information officer says she has no idea when the online portal will be fully restored and functioning after a security failure in the spring.

Site has been down since April, tender for replacement won't go out for months

The freedom of information portal for the province has been down since April and there's no timeline for its return. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Nova Scotia's chief information officer says she has no idea when the province's freedom of information portal will be fully restored and functioning online.

"We're moving as fast as we can," Sandra Cascadden said in an interview Wednesday.

The website, which allowed people to file, pay for and receive freedom of information requests electronically, has been down since April. A security failure with the website made its entire contents — including people's personal information and other data that should have been redacted — available for download by anyone.

When a 19-year-old Halifax man did just that as he attempted to archive the site, the portal was pulled down, the police were called in and the McNeil government faced weeks of intense criticism and embarrassment for the way it handled and responded to the matter and subsequent fallout.

The portal is comprised of three parts: one allows people to file, pay for and receive applications, one allows for public posting of disclosure packages two weeks after their release, and one handles the back-end work of processing requests and redacting information.

It's the first two parts that continue to cause headaches for IT staff.

While government staff were able to build a new site that allows public access to all disclosure from freedom of information requests in the meantime, there remains no option for filing requests and paying for them or receiving responses online. Instead, people must mail in written requests along with a cheque for $5.

It had been hoped the system could be fully restored by the fall, but Cascadden said as staff attempted to repair the portions of the portal that were causing problems, it became clear the more they tried to separate and repair things, the more problems they were creating.

"The system was not designed to be broken apart," she said.

Sandra Cascadden is the province's chief information officer and associate deputy minister of the Internal Services Department. (CBC)

Cascadden said the best option is to go back to the market to look for other solutions. Business requirements are being drafted to be used as part of a new request for proposals. A request will be ready by March or April, depending on staff workload, she said.

That means the portal will be down for longer than a year before it is restored and Cascadden said she has no idea when the complete portal will be back online.

Original company can submit bid

When the tender is finally ready, Cascadden said there is nothing to stop the company that presided over the failed portal — Unisys — from bidding on the work.

"When we go to the market, any vendor can bid on the business," she said. "Legally, we cannot exclude them."

The problems with the portal related to the software used to run it, known as Amanda 7. While the government still intends to migrate other services to Amanda 7, Cascadden said it will be done in the government's own environment as opposed to a third party's, meaning they will "have more command and control."

AG report due in January

The government is being "extra cautious" in the process, she said, and is adding applications one at a time, putting each through vulnerability testing before adding another. Work will continue on that effort until the government is satisfied things are ready to go live, she said.

Meanwhile, the security failure of the FOI portal continues to be probed by the province's auditor general and privacy commission.

The website for Auditor General Michael Pickup says his report will be released in January. Cascadden said the report hasn't come to her office yet for a response, but the government is co-operating fully with Pickup on the effort.

"We've already tightened up some of our own processes," she said. "But it's always good to have somebody else come in and take a look at what we're doing and how we're doing it."

About the Author

Michael Gorman

Reporter

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia who covers Province House, rural communities, and everything in between. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

With files from Jean Laroche