Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia renews only part of contract for problem-plagued FOI website

The provincial government will renew its contract for one year with the company that oversees the beleaguered freedom-of-information website, but only for part of the work.

An update on the site, which has been down since April, is expected next week

The provincial government expects to have an update next week on the status of its freedom-of-information portal, which has been offline since April. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The Nova Scotia government will renew its contract for one year with the company that oversees the province's beleaguered freedom-of-information website, but only for part of the work.

The deadline to make a decision was the end of this month, and a government spokesperson said Unisys will get about $120,000 to manage the back end of the portal.

Internal Services Department spokesperson Brian Taylor said staff continue to use the back end to process requests so they don't have to do it by hand. Internal Services Minister Patricia Arab noted during an interview that problems with the portal have not been related to the back-end work flow.

Arab said the public part of the portal, however, is being revamped to be more like the government's Open Data portal, and that work will be handled by a different vendor, likely through a sole-source contract.

"We've been talking to a number of companies about what we would like in terms of public disclosure. It's not starting from the ground up."

Taylor said the one-year contract extension gives the government time to evaluate how other jurisdictions handle their back end work and determine if a new approach would be better, at which point the next contract would go through a procurement process.

The freedom-of-information portal has been offline since April. It was pulled after a government employee discovered a security failure in the website.

Further inspection showed people were able to download not just public documents but also hundreds of documents that should have remained private. One person downloaded the portal's entire contents of about 7,000 documents.

A 19-year-old Halifax man was arrested in the incident, however Halifax Regional Police did not ultimately pursue charges.

An update on the public disclosure portion of the portal, where completed freedom-of-information requests are posted, is expected next week.

"I'm hoping that the public portion of it will be up as soon as whenever whatever company we go with can get it up," Arab said.

But Arab said there is no timeline for when the client portion of the website, known as My Account, which allows people to file requests and pay for them online, will be back in operation. Testing continues on it, and Arab said the third-party testers will continue their work until they can be certain there are no flaws.

"I don't like how long it has taken, but I want to make sure that it's done correctly."

The security failure in the website resulted in the disclosure of people's personal information, in some cases birth dates, social insurances numbers, addresses and information related to Community Services files. No one's billing information was compromised, because that portion of the portal is handled by a different system.

Auditor General Michael Pickup had previously flagged security concerns about the software used to operate the portal, known as AMANDA. Pickup and Nova Scotia Privacy Commissioner Catherine Tully are both examining the security failures of the portal.

Opposition wants better process

In a statement, Tory Leader Karla MacFarlane said the buck stops with the government when it comes to problems with the portal.

"The government failed to protect our private information and Nova Scotians have endured breach after breach," she said. "The government is ultimately responsible and owe Nova Scotians a clear and transparent plan for how they are going to keep private information private. They best be prepared to defend $120,000 in taxpayers' dollars going to this company."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said there have been problems with the government's approach from the start, including the "villainization" of the 19-year-old man who was arrested. He said he's disappointed it wasn't until the last possible day before the government provided an update on the contract with Unisys.

"I think open, forthright and straight information has been in short supply with this."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

now