VANCOUVER – High-ranking British Columbia government employees did not share private voter information with the provincial Liberal party, as suggested in a controversial ethnic voter outreach plan, the province’s privacy watchdog said in a report released Thursday.
But Elizabeth Denham said her investigation did find that government employees regularly transferred emails from work accounts to private accounts, a potential violation of privacy laws.
Denham said some government employees were forwarding hundreds of emails to private accounts, possibly subjecting them to the prying eyes of the United States’ controversial security network.
“The privacy concern is if personal information is forwarded from a government email to a Hotmail account, to a Gmail account, to a Yahoo account, that personal information is now sitting on servers based in the U.S. and is scanned by providers for all kinds of purposes, including behavioural advertising. It’s also subject to U.S. law,” Denham said in an interview.
“Our privacy laws in British Columbia require personal information to be stored and accessed only in Canada.”
The investigation was initiated after news broke earlier this year about an ethnic outreach plan hatched by high-ranking government employees in the lead-up to the May provincial election.
The scandal forced Premier Christy Clark to apologize several times and fire her deputy chief of staff. It also forced the resignation of then-multicultural minister John Yap.
In December 2011, the premier’s former deputy chief of staff, Kim Haakstad, called a meeting with representatives of government, the B.C. Liberal Party and the government caucus, the report said.
The discussion resulted in a documented call to share information between government and the party as part of an effort to win ethnic votes in the May election.
Denham’s report noted that the outreach plan made reference to organizing multicultural roundtables throughout the province, and the government did just that from June to September 2012.
A list of attendees was recorded at each meeting, with their address, email and telephone number, but Denham said the investigation found no evidence that information was provided to the party.
However, they did find that many other government records were sent from secure government email to private accounts, “and that’s really concerning from a freedom of information and from a privacy perspective,” Denham said.
And as far as the roundtable information, Denham said meetings were taking place, staff were circulating plans and there was much discussion about sharing the information.
“The reality is that all the pieces were in place for it to happen,” she said.
“It was all possible, but in this case there was no evidence that this list-sharing actually took place.”
Andrew Wilkinson, the provincial minister of technology, innovation and citizens’ services, said government employees will be reminded to keep government information secure by not transferring government email into private accounts.
“There are 28,000 employees in the government service,” Wilkinson said after the report was released.
“Obviously new people need to get used to the idea that this is how it’s done, and if there is any kind of divergence from this role, that can’t be allowed to spread into a habit of more than a couple of people. It needs to be stopped in its tracks.”
The privacy commissioner issued a previous report critical of the rising number of incidents where no documents are found in response to requests under the Freedom on Information Act.
In her latest report, the commissioner said she was particularly troubled by a comment from former multiculturalism minister John Yap, who said his former communications director routinely used personal email to avoid provincial freedom of information legislation. Both Yap and the communication director, Brian Bonney, were forced to resign over the ethnic outreach scandal.
“I am concerned that this demonstrates an acceptance and familiarity within government of the practice of evading freedom of information requests,” the report said.
The separation of roles within government and the Liberal party is a “fundamental problem that government and the B.C. Liberal Party need to address.”
Denham made five recommendations to ensure the security of government information, including keeping government business in government-controlled information management systems.
The report also recommended mandatory training on how to keep roles separate for government employees with close ties to the political party.
Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the provincial Freedom of Information Act, said by sending government information outside of Canada, the high-ranking government officials cited in the report — including the premier’s deputy chief of staff — were breaking the law.
“These were not wet-behind-the-ears 20-somethings. These were experienced people. They knew exactly what they were doing,” Gogolek said.
“We are at a point now where we need sanctions. We’re at the point where people are doing this with impunity… unconcerned about the consequences.”