Tuesday, July 21, 2009
BC Rail: In the Terabyte Age, government has no need to press delete
BY MIRO CERNETIG
VANCOUVER SUN - JULY 21, 2009
Full column is HERE.
Our British Columbia government might want to dispatch someone to a computer store, to hunt down one of the wonders of the digital age -- a $129-computer hard drive with room for a terabyte of data.
A terabyte, in case you're not up to speed with your bits and bytes, would offer enough digital space to contain the equivalent of one million books. In other words, pretty much every e-mail that's ever been written by the government could be stored on a drive the size of a paperback book.
Okay, perhaps given the verbosity of politicians and their bureaucrats, they might need more than one of those terabytes. But you get the idea. We live in a time when there is a near-infinite ability to store data, pretty much forever, for next to nothing.
It's a point worth noting after the latest, bizarre twist in the BC Rail court case.
We have been told by the provincial government that e-mails between Premier Gordon Campbell, top cabinet ministers and staff, allegedly of importance in the trial on charges of corruption in the $1-billion privatization of provincially owned BC Rail, have likely been deleted.
Why, in our digital age, when computer memory is approaching the infinite at near-zero cost, are government correspondence and cabinet level e-mails being erased at all?
Whatever the impact any deleted government e-mails might have in determining guilt or innocence in the BC Rail trial, the systematic deletion of government correspondence is not in the public interest. It erodes government transparency, a pillar of healthy democracy. Wiping clean the public record is not only unnecessary, it is essentially an attack on history.
Let me explain.
Over the last couple of decades, as e-mail has taken over from pen and paper as the primary method government officials, politicians and citizens use to communicate, there's been a steady move toward government policies of systematically erasing data. Few jurisdictions have resisted the idea of eventually pressing "delete" on government e-mails.
Often this erasure of the public record is made under the guise of clearing out limited storage space on government computers. That used to be arguable, of course, when computer storage cost a fortune. But it's an antiquated and fatuous excuse in an age when anyone can pick up a $129 terabyte drive at Future Shop. No technological or cost reason now exists for wiping clean the memory banks.
Another rationalization is that what our governments erase is "transitory" -- that is, e-mails of no public value because they involve innocuous, housekeeping messages, such as: "Hey, Premier, would you like a Diet Coke?" Or, "Hey, Premier, that 9 a.m. meeting has been changed to 9:30."
But why are politicians -- or their bureaucrats -- overseeing this highly subjective decision? How do they -- or we -- know that what is perceived as transitory and irrelevant today won't have great value in the future, when history is being written and public policy sifted and judged?
Consider the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's famous White House tapes -- in essence an early form of 24/7, digital record keeping. The Watergate tapes contained the damning evidence of the U.S. president's cover-up of dirty tricks, ending Nixon's presidency and making politicians leery of the dangers of an exhaustive record left behind for posterity.
But there was more than a scandal on the Watergate tapes. It was history. Think of the telling moments that would have been lost to the record if those tapes had been ruled transitory: Nixon's nocturnal musings of those plotting against him, a president's egomania, his loneliness, his feelings of vulnerability, his relationship to members of his inner circle, his unvarnished explanation of the logic behind decisions, the ruthless pragmatism and ambition of Henry Kissinger, and even Nixon's flashes of brilliance.
Closer to home, consider W.A.C. Bennett and The Rise of British Columbia, the best political book ever written about a B.C. premier. Its author, David J. Mitchell, was able to write that historical tome thanks to the vast written records and correspondence from inside the Bennett government, all safely stored in the B.C. archives. Those facts later informed his many hours of interviews with the premier and created history.
It's time for a new look at preserving the official records of government. Why not end the touchy question of when it's time or not to delete government e-mails?
Sure, put some reasonable time limits for full disclosure to guarantee commercial interests and even reputations. I'm not talking about storing personal data of citizens but rather the multitude of conversations and facts that create who we are. Why, in our Terabyte Age, don't we store it all forever?
There is no doubt that the deletion of email files had nothing whatever to do with the effective management of electronic memory resources.
It was, plain and simple (and given the existing law) nothing more than a blatant attempt to avoid legal responsibility and not to be accountable to the people and the courts of the province.
It's time to stop calling a spade anything but a shovel - the CEO and his flack catchers notwithstanding, we are dealing with criminality.
This has nothing to do with anything except a continued desire on behalf of the Premier of this province to avoid responsibility, legal or moral, for his actions.
Campbell was at the helm steering the ship, he is the self-described CEO of the province...It's time for him to go!
I agree with Miro, we need to purchase the terabyte drives, change the legislation regarding emails to read "nothing gets deleted ever!" - then keep EVERYTHING.
Once people know that the messages they send to one another at work, the messages they send home, etc...are being kept due to the laws regarding safe-keeping of the mail system - they'll stop abusing the system too. After all, how many have written something in the past about..oh, say a Minister or Deputy throwing their weight around, or who was sleeping with whom. Under the new system - that would not be happening. Voila! No more abuse of the systems that IT have said is an issue in all corporations.
its all about what information goverment can hold and retain on citizens in respect of public matters. why would govt business be different?
I think the Privacy Act stipulates what kind of info the govt can kept on us, the retention and destruction rules, etc.
Access to Information Act allows the public access to such info.
DO we really want Govt hoarding and keeing records on us infinately so they can use them to bury us or group of citizens with penalties, etc for failure to comply with a particular peice of legislation, no matter how misguided?
The ramifications are far and wide. Be careful what you wish for or you may find your late payment of library books or failure to pay parking tickets will be on file for EVER and may one day be applied onto your property taxes.
Date: Wednesday July 22, 2009
Time: 12:00PM PDT
Mark Hume of The Globe and Mail British Columbia bureau takes your questions on the political corruption trial that is reaching all the way to the office of Premier Gordon Campbell.
They do the PUBLIC'S business - the Public has a RIGHT to know.
Apart from private details (personal data, health references and the like) everything else these turkeys do should be IN THE PUBLIC REALM.
In countries where this kind of openness is the rule, they haven't been uncompetitive or backward - in fact, quite the contrary.
Destroy nothing; archive everything and open it all to the public and not just to the bought and paid for media.
If companies don't like it, they can take their bloody business elsewhere.
Obviously the government doesn't care about it's OWN laws regarding retention of mails - so remove the possibility of error. Keep them all. Access to Information would still apply, with no great hairy gaps, or oopsies! If we keep giving the government "loopholes" they'll create more for their own use. It's time to rein them in.
Was Campbell ever sincere about running the most open and accountable government in history, as he said before taking office? NBL. Forget what they say, watch what they do.
"Destroy nothing; archive everything and open it all to the public and not just to the bought and paid for media.
If companies don't like it, they can take their bloody business elsewhere."
Amen! If something is above board, it can be shared openly and it will pass public scrutiny.
Premier's reassurances on e-mail record-keeping ring hollow
BC Rail message chase reveals a different tale
By Vaughn Palmer, Vancouver SunJuly 23, 2009
Opposition leader Carole James provided the opportunity during legislature debate in the spring of 2007, probing Campbell's awareness in the context of the case that was then, as now, in front of a B.C. Supreme Court judge.
James put the question point-blank: "Government has a responsibility and is required by statute to protect all documents and records. Can the premier tell this house, please, what his understanding is about that statutory requirement, and how his office is meeting that requirement?"
Surely, Campbell replied. "The premier's office has a full records management system that's in place both hard copy and electronic. Everyone in the office is trained. We abide fully by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act."
Indeed, his office had recently received an independent seal of approval on that very point. "The office of the comptroller general just undertook an audit of our records management and information technology systems, and we received a very high score."
James wondered how he could square that finding with the apparent view of his key adviser Ken Dobell, who had earlier disclosed (in a comment widely reported in the press) how in reference to the e-mail record, "I delete the stuff all the time as fast as I can."
Campbell dismissed the Dobell comment as inoperative. "I actually can't recall when it was made, but as I mentioned, we do have full records management in the premier's office both hard copy and electronic. We take that responsibility seriously."
He wasn't getting off the hook that easily. She reminded him how Dobell made the comment at a conference on the information-access legislation four years earlier, at a time when he was serving as deputy minister to the premier.
Moreover: "The leader seems to be under the impression that somehow or other, [these] communications are not backed up on the server. They are backed up on the server."
Not so on the latter point, though he didn't correct the record until the next day. "What I have been now informed is that we have taken steps to upgrade our technology so the server can back up (those devices). ... It is not in place yet, but it will be shortly."
Other than that "clarification," the premier let things stand as he had set them up the day before. Government mindful of its legal obligations. Records -- printed, electronic or otherwise -- fully accessible. Everything backed up, with the singular and soon-to-be-rectified exception of e-mails from portable devices.
You're a much more generous person than I am.
I read Palmer's column at breakfast and decided it just didn't stack up against what's being written this past week, and didn't deserve a place amongst them.
Imagine, though: we're seeing enough points of view that we're able to decide which ones get star billing. Nice change, eh?
I think Gary Mason got 5 stars for yesterday's column, headlined "All right, Campbell. Let's talk e.mails". Wow. What a wonderful new attitude.
What I'm finding lately is a new danger-zone, in fact. Some news articles repeat the same things over and over and over again until it stuns the reader, and makes them almost incapable of absorbing any meaning (because there is no new meaning). I'm trying to eliminate all that brain-numbing repetition for that reason ... and Palmer comes pretty close to the line, in my view.
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