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Charging teen is an abuse of power in Nova Scotia privacy breach, say civil liberties groups

|Written By Michelle Cuthbert
Charging teen is an abuse of power in Nova Scotia privacy breach, say civil liberties groups
Michael Bryant, executive director and general counsel of the CCLA is asking the Nova Scotia Attorney General to drop charges against a man who downloaded documents from a government website.

Civil liberties groups are defending a Nova Scotia teen who has been charged with unauthorized use of a computer.

The 19-year-old man, whose name is not yet public, had mistakenly downloaded documents that the Nova Scotia Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner had classified as confidential information, the CBC reports.

Michael Bryant, executive director and general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says that the charge is an overstep by the Nova Scotia government.

“It seems like such an abuse of power,” he says.

In a letter sent to those affected by the privacy breach, which many recipients shared over social media, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner says that more than 7,000 documents were accessed that potentially contained names and addresses of those requesting information through the province’s Freedom of Information website.

In an interview with the CBC, the teen says that 15 police officers descended upon his home on April 11 and arrested him, his parents and his siblings and seized all the computers in the house. The teen said that he accessed confidential information by accident. The documents were downloaded with a program that changes the numbers on the ends of URL codes. The teen didn’t have to break a password or hack a security program because the documents were available to be accessed on the website. If the information had been protected, the program wouldn’t have been able to download it.

The man could face up to 10 years in prison.

Bryant says this is an oppressive move by a government agency that is embarrassed about a mistake.

“That the Information and Privacy Commissioner in Nova Scotia apparently failed to safeguard the information that it housed if anything justifies a criminal investigation against them, not against the fellow who apparently inadvertently tripped over their mistake,” says Bryant.

After the teen's arrest, the CCLA reached out and said it would do anything in its power to help him. He is being represented by privacy lawyer David Fraser, a partner at McInnes Cooper. Bryant says the CCLA is working with Fraser to connect the teen with additional criminal counsel.

Bryant also wrote a letter to the attorney general of Nova Scotia, Mark Furey, on behalf of the CCLA, asking him to withdraw the charges against the teen.

“Leaving aside the fact that downloading publicly available data is no crime, indeed no theft, it is not in the public interest to prosecute a young man in the foregoing circumstances,” Bryant wrote.

The case has also reached the ears of civil liberties advocates across the border. Aaron Mackey, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a tech and civil liberties advocacy group based in San Francisco, wrote an open letter to Canadian authorities, urging them to drop the charges.

“What we see here is I think just an outrageous overreaction from government officials,” says Mackey.

If the teen is convicted, Mackey says, it would set a dangerous precedent for anyone who wishes to access government documents.

“The implications would be that it would be a crime in Canada to access publicly available information that the government has itself published,” says Mackey. “That seems like a pretty scary and huge implication.”

Const. Carol McIsaac, a spokeswoman for the Halifax Regional Police, said in an email statement, “When we received a report that the public’s personal information may have been compromised, we took the matter very seriously. At the time, we executed the warrant and conducted the arrest, we followed the evidence and acted on the information that was available to us.”

McIsaac says the teen was released on a promise to appear on June 12 at the Halifax Provincial Court and that the status of his arrest has not changed. She was unable to comment any further.

As of April 30, the province’s Internal Services ministry has reported 11 additional instances of unusual activity involving 900 of the same documents that were accessed in the April 11 breach. While no new Nova Scotians were affected, 53 people will be notified who were affected by the is participating in “multiple ongoing investigations.”

Bryant and Mackey say that if the charges proceed to court, both the CCLA and the EFF will be on hand to help with the young man's defence, but they hope that the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner will hold itself accountable for the breach.

“They actually need to work on protecting the privacy of people who have requested government data,” says Mackey. “And they can let this 19-year-old, who discovered their poor security practices, get back to being a 19-year-old.”





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