Watchdog recommends that IM’s sent by government officials need to be monitored to protect confidential information

by Andrew Roach on November 29, 2013

Digital communication has evolved to such a point that even innocuous features such as instant messaging are now a common part of daily life for those at the highest level of power in local and federal governments.

However, a new report published by the information watchdog has called for government officials to have strict controls on who is sending instant messages and what is sent in each message.

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault even went as far as suggesting that the practice should be banned as it could potentially delete important information that the public may need to know at a later date.

More often than not, the instant messages are sent over Blackberry devices and have a default setting in which messages are automatically deleted 30 days after they were first sent.

One of the main concerns that Legault expressed in the report was that instant messages could be used to get around data access laws and that they could prevent the public from finding out key information about any new legislations or proposals put forward by the government.

Indeed, the investigation was originally commissioned over this issue as a complaint was made to the office following a conversation between two government officials where one explicitly asked for a matter to be discussed via IM rather than through e-mail.

In addition to a potential ban on instant messaging, Legault suggested that the Access to Information should be updated to include that all IM’s are archived so that the information is available for the public to see should it be requested.

Legault believes that these changes are necessary to ensure that the public will always have the right to information and maintain free speech nationwide. This was highlighted in a statement to the press where the Information Commissioner stated: “While technology is a powerful tool for innovation, its use must not infringe on the right of Canadians to know what government is doing and to hold it accountable for its decisions.”

There was a lukewarm response from the government who rejected the recommendations suggested by Legault suggesting that there was no need to go to such drastic measures. This was highlighted by the president of the Treasury Board, Tony Clement, who declared: “ I really think that’s a nonsensical recommendation by the information commissioner, with all due respect. “The solution to an issue is not to ban the use of instant messaging”

With both parties at loggerheads over the issue, it seems that the matter won’t be altered in the near future. However, with concerns mounting over the use of digital communication within government, it is surely only a matter of time before action is taken over the issue to protect public access to official documents.

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