OTTAWA - Canada's information watchdog is recommending a virtual ban on instant messaging with federally issued BlackBerrys and other wireless devices because the texts evaporate so quickly, erasing part of the government record.
In a special report to Parliament, Suzanne Legault says instant messages are automatically deleted — usually after 30 days — meaning Canadians can't request them under the Access to Information Act.
Legault says a government proposal would "put the right of access at further risk" by allowing instant messages to be auto-deleted after only three days.
"It's all about managing the volume of government information. This is something that the government is really struggling with," Legault said in an interview.
"They do have a lot of information to manage. But managing information in the context of new technologies cannot be done in a way that affects requesters' rights under the Act."
Some 98,000 BlackBerry devices have been issued to government institutions. But there is no government-wide policy on the use of text-based peer-to-peer forms of communication such as BlackBerry Messenger, PIN-to-PIN and Short Messaging Service (SMS).
Legault selected 11 institutions for review, including key agencies Justice Canada, Library and Archives Canada, National Defence and the Privy Council Office.
She found that most of these institutions allow employees to use instant messaging, yet very few automatically store the messages — unlike regular emails — on a corporate server.
"If instant messages, including PINs, were treated in the Government of Canada in the same manner as emails, many of the concerns about the impact of instant messaging on access would be addressed," Legault says in her report.
"Instead, instant messages, for the most part, are not backed up on servers, are automatically deleted after a set period of time and are, as a result, not recoverable."
Legault recommends disabling instant messaging on government wireless devices, except when there is a genuine operational need for it and measures are taken to archive such messages on a federal server "for a reasonable period of time."
She also recommends:
— Requiring that ministerial offices be contacted immediately when records of potential relevance to an access request might be found there or on a wireless device used by a member of the minister's staff;
— An amendment to the Access to Information Act to add a comprehensive legal duty to document decisions made by federal government institutions, with sanctions for non-compliance.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement rejects the idea of disabling instant messaging.
In a letter appended to Legault's report, Clement instead agrees to direct public servants to preserve such messages, "for example by being forwarded into the email system."
Legault said that leaves no room for human error, unlike automatic indexing of messages.
"People may get sick, people may forget, people may not manage their emails very well, or their instant messaging very well."