Instant messaging brings challenges to government transparency in Canada

Canada’s information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, has recommended in a special report to Parliament that the use of instant messaging between government employees is at risk of violating access to information laws.

Her report investigated the use of wireless devices and instant messaging in 11 federal institutions. It found there were approximately 98,000 BlackBerrys issued and that the instant messages, commonly called “PINs,” that are sent and received on those devices are automatically deleted, usually after 30 days, which leads to a risk of lost information.

Legault recommends a government-wide policy disabling instant messaging on alll government-issued wireless devices, with few exceptions and for more strict rules for archiving of text messages.

The president of the Treasury Board, Tony Clement, does not agree with the recommendations and has declined to implement them, calling a ban on the use of instant messaging “nonsensical.” Clement says that current rules requiring messages regarding official business be saved are adequate, but Legault says this “honor system” relies too much on individual initiative.

This debate highlights how technology is bringing new, complex challenges to government transparency as governments must figure out a way to balance efficiency and innovation with a continued focus on the access to information mission.

“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,” Legault said.