PEI

Only 2 possibilities for missing emails, IT expert tells committee

P.E.I.’s privacy commissioner has said a legislative committee probing into a series of missing government emails will never likely discover what happened to them. But the possibilities were narrowed down significantly for the committee Tuesday.

MLAs told it’s possible to rebuild at least some of the data at centre of email controversy

John Brennan, right, and Scott Cudmore of Information Technology/Shared Services both testified Wednesday at a P.E.I. legislative committee hearing in Charlottetown. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

P.E.I.'s privacy commissioner has said a legislative committee probing into a series of missing government emails will never likely discover what happened to them. But the possibilities were narrowed down significantly for the committee Tuesday.

John Brennan, the province's director of business infrastructure services, told members of the Special Committee on Government Records Retention that there are only two possible ways a swath of emails from Brad Mix, a senior civil servant in government's economic development branch, could have gone missing.

"They were deleted … or they were archived to a location off the network that we didn't have visibility to," Brennan said, in response to a question from PC MLA Sidney MacEwen.

In either case, Brennan said the only people who could have performed the operation would have been the specific user whose email account is involved — in this case, Mix — or someone Mix had personally provided with proxy access to his email account.

Brennan said there would have been a record if someone in government's IT division had been involved, but no such record exists.

The emails are just the latest batch to go missing from the period of time from 2009 to 2012, when the province was pursuing a controversial — and secretive -- bid to become a regulator for online gambling, otherwise known as P.E.I.'s egaming affair.

The scene inside the hearing room where John Brennan and Scott Cudmore were testifying Wednesday. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

The Mix emails were requested in two separate access-to-information requests, one of those filed by the head of a company suing the province for $150 million in relation to e-gaming.

In June, P.E.I.'s former privacy commissioner Karen Rose chastised the province for not disclosing to the two applicants that the emails they were seeking no longer existed, which she cited as a breach of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

And she said the failure to maintain an archive of the emails was itself a breach of the Archives and Records Act.

Other possibilities ruled out

Brennan ruled out a number of possibilities for the committee, including some Rose described in her report as having been put forward by Mix or the Department of Economic Growth to account for the missing emails.

He said the emails could not have gone missing during a phone upgrade, though he did point out that under the Groupwise system, staff had been required to reduce the number of emails in their archive to 5,000 before upgrading.

He said if the data had been corrupted IT would be able to see the corrupted data and possibly repair it.

He also said the emails could not have been deleted accidentally.

"I believe you would have to have intent," he said, in response to a question from Opposition leader Peter Bevan-Baker. "There's several steps… time sensitive, it just doesn't happen. It would have to be some level of intent to do that."

There's several steps… time sensitive, it just doesn't happen. It would have to be some level of intent to do that.— John Brennan

As to how someone might archive emails to a location that's not part of government's network, Brennan said email users used to be able to archive emails locally, to a thumb drive for example, but that hasn't been possible since 2015.

However, when asked by Bevan-Baker whether government email users can "permanently triple-delete" emails on their own initiative without having to involve IT, Brennan said that's "correct. Because IT shared services is not the owner of the data. We're the caretakers of the data… The records are owned and the files are owned by the departments."

Scott Cudmore, director of enterprise architecture for the province, said a planned upgrade to a new records management system would restrict the current ability of email users to "arbitrarily delete records" by limiting that ability to specific users with records management credentials for emails that have been deemed significant and thus must be archived under provincial legislation.

IT could retrieve some missing emails, but no one's asked

Brennan said it would be possible to recreate some of Mix's missing archive by going through the accounts of other government employees who received copies of the emails, but no request to do so has come from government.

"If the emails in question were sent to other government employees, and ITSS was given those names and those accounts, we could absolutely go into those other accounts and try to find the email," he said. 

Mix has been invited to appear before the committee, as have Melissa MacEachern and Chris LeClair, two former government employees whose missing emails were referenced in the auditor general's 2016 report on egaming.

Committee members were told Wednesday none of the three have responded to their invitations.

CBC reached out to Brad Mix for this story, but did not receive a response before publication.

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