Liberals block 3rd attempt to bring privacy breach case to committee

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Opposition politicians are accusing the Nova Scotia government of having something to hide after Liberal MLAs once again blocked a motion to have civil servants appear before the public accounts committee to discuss the beleagured freedom-of-information website.

Tory MLA Tim Houston made the motion at Wednesday's regular meeting — his third time doing so — and again Liberal MLAs voted it down.

Houston wants Internal Services Department officials to tell the committee what's going on with the portal, which has been offline for more than a month after it was discovered the publicly accessible website wasn't protecting private information.

The security failure was first revealed last month and police arrested a 19-year-old Halifax man days later for downloading 7,000 documents from the website. Those records included hundreds with private information, but which were publicly visible to anyone with the link.

Police subsequently decided against pressing ahead with charges, and the teen has said he had no malicious intent.

Houston said the government is charged with protecting a lot of information about Nova Scotians and when it fails to do so, the public deserves to know why and what's being done to fix the problem.

"They've had ample opportunity to have Internal Services appear before the committee and they've voted it down multiple times," he told reporters at Province House. "They just do not want to talk about this."

The department continues to work with service providers to understand why the website wasn't fully secured and how to prevent future failures. The province's privacy commission and auditor general are also helping in the effort, the latter at the government's request.

Liberal MLA Gordon Wilson said the government is not opposed to having Internal Services officials appear at committee, but believes it would be "pre-emptive" to do so until the auditor general and privacy commissioner finish their work.

"Simply put, there's a lot of things going on in the background right now with them. I don't know where the public accounts committee would bring more information further at this point."

But New Democrat MLA Dave Wilson said the committee is exactly where the discussion should happen and there's no reason to wait for reports to be complete. Auditor General Michael Pickup has not indicated any opposition to the topic being called before his work is complete.

Wilson said the government's mindset seems clear.

"I think they would, obviously, love for this story just to go away."

Government's shifting tone

Although government officials told reporters last month the situation was not a hack, court records indicate that's exactly what civil servants had told Halifax Regional Police.

Government members used harsh language to describe what had happened, with Premier Stephen McNeil accusing the 19-year-old of stealing. McNeil also rejected the idea the government left the door of the website wide open.

But McNeil's tone has softened in recent weeks, including on Wednesday, although he maintained something wrong was done to download the information.

"It would be no different than if you left your front door open and I walked in and took something out of your living room."

When it was live, the freedom-of-information website indicated available files were public and that private information was protected. Nothing that was downloaded had any kind of markings to indicate it should not be public.