Latest Shared Services Canada outages disrupt border traffic

Truckers bringing imports into Canada across the border are required to transmit information about their loads ahead of time, as a security measure. But a key computer system, managed by Shared Services Canada, has been crashing repeatedly since 2015, leaving truckers frustrated and trade disrupted.

Computer network designed to assure security at Canada-U.S. border crashes 200-plus times

An internal briefing document says trucking has been disrupted at Canada-U.S. border points because of frequent computer crashes of a national security system since 2015. (Darryl Dick/Canadian Press)

A border-security computer system has been crashing repeatedly, disrupting truck traffic into Canada, in the latest technical foul-up by Shared Services Canada, the beleaguered federal IT agency.

The so-called Advance Commercial Information (ACI) system, which requires all truckers to transmit digital information about their imports before arriving at the border, has suffered more than 200 outages since 2015, CBC News has learned.

Ottawa made pre-arrival electronic submission of truck-cargo data mandatory on May 6, 2015, a security measure partly intended to safeguard against threats to Canadians' health and safety from dangerous imports.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was told in May that CBSA is experiencing a higher-than-average number of outages in a key computer network that tracks imports. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Typically, a truck operator in the United States transmits data about a load at least an hour before arriving at the Canada-U.S. border, on threat of penalties of up to $40,000 for failure to do so.

The advance data is then reviewed by the national targeting centre, created in 2012 to alert border officers to potentially risky shipments.

But the ACI system used to input the data to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), a network maintained by Shared Services Canada, has been notoriously unreliable.

"The CBSA has been experiencing an increased number of system outages and performance degradation issues (January 2017-May 2017)," says a May presentation for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

Outages increase

"During this period, the CBSA experienced 23 incidents that resulted in a total of 151 hours of systems outage time, representing a 142-per-cent increase over the same period last year."

"Trucking sector shareholders have been vocal about the frequency, disruption and communication gaps surrounding these outages."

CBC News obtained the document under the Access to Information Act.

The increase in system crashes follows 79 such outages in 2015, and 101 last year. A spokesperson for CBSA, Jayden Robertson, declined to provide numbers recorded since May this year, but said the "frequency of ACI outages has decreased." He said the agency does not track the costs of outages.

"The main issues were caused by a need to fine-tune new systems and changes in the operating procedures of certain importers," Robertson said in an email.

"Outages require the stakeholders and the CBSA to manage border clearance processes using alternative procedures that include the physical presentation of paperwork."

We found no systematic monitoring taking place in relation to the management of IT assets at SSC.- June 2017 internal audit of Shared Services Canada

Even so, many truckers have been caught by outages while in transit, unable to transmit the required data and then getting stuck at the border while CBSA assesses the "undeclared" shipment — and sometimes imposes a penalty, even though the trucker was not to blame.

The Toronto-based Canadian Trucking Alliance sounded the alarm earlier this year, noting that some truckers get trapped at border points and hit with hefty fines because of outages, unable to even turn around and clear up the paperwork problem for a second attempt to cross in Canada.

CBSA officials "recognize there are some issues they have to address at their end," said alliance spokesman Lak Shoan.

The agency has agreed to refund some of those penalties, Shoan said. And until Dec. 31 this year, the CBSA has temporarily agreed to allow trucks arriving at the border without electronic paperwork to turn around and try again later.

The import system foul-ups mirror recent outages in a separate export system, operated for CBSA by Statistics Canada but — like the ACI — maintained by Shared Services Canada.

Statistics Canada's export-monitoring system suffered a failure on June 9, which disrupted truck traffic heading to the U.S. The system is maintained by Shared Services Canada. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Beginning on the morning of June 9 this year, the so-called Canadian Automated Export Declaration (CAED) system was down for more than 30 hours, preventing exporters from pre-filing cargo data prior to crossing into the United States.

"Some trucks can't cross the border," Statistics Canada reported in an internal assessment at the time.

StatsCan spokesman Peter Frayne said there have been a dozen CAED incidents since October 2016. "Certain software issues, software updates, permissions and anti-virus programs have prevented the program from working correctly," he said in an email, noting a replacement is not scheduled until 2019.

The repeated trade disruptions are only the latest evidence of continuing failures at Shared Services Canada, the troubled federal IT provider created in 2011 to manage Ottawa's assets efficiently.

'Arguably criminal'

Numerous departments and agencies have complained about SSC's shoddy support and management of hardware, software and networks, among the latest the RCMP.

In March, then-commissioner Bob Paulson told the agency it would be "reckless and arguably criminal" for the Mounties to renew a contract with Shared Services Canada, given the poor service.

Shared Services Canada is the department responsible since 2011 for the federal government's IT services, including its data centres. The agency has come under fire for its frequent IT failures. (Shared Services Canada)

And an independent consultants' report earlier this year confirmed SSC has been badly managed and under-resourced from the start, leaving major projects in limbo or severely delayed, including a government-wide email transformation.

Those findings are buttressed in an internal SSC audit from June, which concluded: "We found gaps in the accuracy and sufficiency of the information available to support and monitor the management of IT assets."

"We found no systematic monitoring taking place in relation to the overall management of IT assets at SSC."

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby


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