Story of N.S. teen accused in government website breach resonates with programmers

The story of a 19-year-old man facing a criminal charge for downloading files from Nova Scotia’s freedom-of-information site is resonating with programmers in Nova Scotia and around the world.

'I think a lot of people in tech have gone through similar situations,' says Halifax coder

The 19-year-old at the centre of a privacy breach on the province's freedom-of-information portal says he thought the documents he downloaded were public information. (Shutterstock)

The story of a 19-year-old man facing a criminal charge for downloading files from Nova Scotia's freedom-of-information site is resonating with programmers in Nova Scotia and around the world.

A coder with a Halifax startup said he was immediately angry when he read about the teenager's experience.

"I think a lot of people in tech have gone through similar situations," said Alex Davies, chief technical officer of Coin Nation ATMs Inc., a company which is designing bank machines and point-of-sale devices that work with cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

Info was supposed to be private

CBC News is granting anonymity to the 19-year-old accused because he has not been formally arraigned and his name is not yet public.

The teenager told CBC News he thought he was downloading an archive of public documents when he saved approximately 7,000 records to his home computer.

He said he thought the documents he downloaded were public information.

On Tuesday, the provincial government said he also downloaded the personal information of about 700 Nova Scotians that were included in unredacted reports that were never supposed to be made public.

On Wednesday last week, the young man's home was raided by police, and he's now facing a charge of "unauthorized use of a computer," which carries a possible 10-year prison sentence.

Programmers reminded of similar experiences

When Davies read the young man's story, he was immediately reminded of a bad experience he had at school.

Davies had opened a VPN to his home computer so he could play a video game during class.

His teacher saw the black-and-white terminal screen and got scared he was hacking the school system.

He wound up suspended for a week.

"Everybody who does that kind of thing has had that run-in with an authority figure where they don't understand what's going on, and they start blaming," Davies said.

Davies said many people in the tech world would like to help.

"Well, there's a lot of people online who are looking to donate to this person's legal defence, and I know he's not allowed to use computers right now, he can't set that up for himself," he said.

Worldwide attention to case

Davies also offered on behalf of the company to set up a GoFundMe page and a Bitcoin wallet to accept donations of cryptocurrency toward a legal defence fund.

The story of the Nova Scotian privacy breach and subsequent charges has been shared worldwide via social media.

Evan d'Entremont, an IT security expert in Halifax, wrote a blog post about the incident that brought early attention to the case.

"I've got hits on that blog post now from Australia, from Europe, all over North America, 45 people from the provincial government here. I mean, it's huge. Slashdot, Hacker News, all the main news sites in the IT industry are blowing up with this story right now," d'Entremont said.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said it would like to contact the teenager to offer help.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an electronic civil liberties group in California, retweeted the story and provided this statement to CBC News.

"It's outrageous that Canadian officials have criminally charged a teen who reportedly did little more than access public records that the same government had previously released to others," said Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Aaron Mackey.

"If any of the records contained private information that should not have been released, the government is responsible for that, not the teen," he said.

About the Author

Jack Julian

Reporter

Jack Julian joined CBC Nova Scotia as an arts reporter in 1997. His news career began on the morning of Sept. 3, 1998 following the crash of Swissair 111. He is now a data journalist in Halifax, and you can reach him at (902) 456-9180, by email at jack.julian@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter @jackjulian