Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Digital records dilemma

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Governments at all levels are required by legislation or bylaws to protect electronic records such as email communications from arbitrary destruction. As recent events in Ontario have demonstrated, however, the law alone is often inadequate when deletion of sensitive information is as simple as a keystroke.

Former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty is under a cloud today because several of his former staff deleted sensitive emails about the cancellation of two gas plants. The erasing of official records was apparently a common practice, even though Ontario has legislation that regulates how and when records can be destroyed. Police are investigating.

Mr. McGuinty's former chief of staff has even said he routinely deleted his work emails and he didn't believe in keeping paper records, preferring verbal communication, in person or by telephone, to make policy decisions.

It's hard to avoid the observation that such behaviour was intended to skirt access to information legislation and to bury forever the decision-making processes that form the basis of public policy.

Proper record keeping is vital to the operation of a democratic state because it helps keep governments accountable. In addition to being the "corporate memory" of government, records also help the state defend itself in lawsuits or to acknowledge its guilt when appropriate.

They are raw materials for historians, who rely on documents to define the country and its character at different moments in time.

In Manitoba, the process for storing or destroying records is regulated by the Archives and Recordkeeping Act, which applies to civil servants and political staff working for executive council.

Under the law, government departments are responsible for deciding which records have "archival value" and which can be destroyed.

Incredibly, however, the government's computer system is not capable of providing record-keeping functions for emails, so "employees must print and file email messages to a formal file system before deleting the electronic message," according to a directive to employees.

The province is updating its ability to manage email and electronic documents, but the system is so cumbersome, it raises concerns about the integrity of the process.

There's also no way to be sure if the rules are followed, or even if they are well understood and respected by staff. Ontario's privacy commissioner said she was surprised to find the government had no backup system to archive emails, which shows how little importance was attached to the process.

Of course the same was true in pre-computer days, when paper files could easily be destroyed. There's also no way to protect against the use of private computers and devices to avoid public scrutiny, except to prohibit their use for official purposes. There are no penalties for abuse, unless the information destroyed was being sought under freedom of information legislation.

The opportunities for abuse and malfeasance are always difficult to manage, but technology may eventually provide a solution, at least when it comes to preserving important electronic records.

It shouldn't be too difficult, for example, to prevent the permanent deletion of a record until someone or some device has had an opportunity to review it.

The challenge of preserving electronic documents is only just beginning. Eventually Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media will become part of the government record -- they already are in many cases -- and the legitimate domain of archivists.

Protecting and sorting it all will require a new commitment from the public sector, including tougher penalties and enforcement.

Otherwise, the present will be lost, and history, too.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 A16

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