Canadian Security Magazine

B.C. mayor who said his computer was bugged feels vindicated by privacy report

By Dirk Meissner for The Canadian Press   

News Public Sector

A British Columbia municipality violated privacy rights by secretly installing surveillance software on computers used by the mayor, councillors and other city hall employees, says the province's privacy commissioner.

Elizabeth Denham said in a report released Monday that the District of Saanich displayed almost complete lack of awareness about privacy provisions enacted in B.C. more than two decades ago.

Mayor Richard Atwell, who raised concerns late last year about his and others’ computers being bugged, said he felt vindicated by Denham’s report and recommendations.

“I’m very concerned how we got to this point, where essentially, I was right and seemingly everyone else was wrong. And it took Elizabeth Denham to come out with her own independent investigation to validate what I was saying in the first place,” Atwell told a news conference.

“What is this doing on my machine?” he said of the spyware that was installed on computers. “What purpose does it serve? Certainly it’s a concern for democracy.”


The computer spying allegations surfaced last December during a news conference that unfolded like a plot from a TV soap opera.

Atwell admitted to an extramarital affair after the Victoria Times Colonist reported on its front page that police responded to a domestic dispute call where he was present with a woman and her husband.

Atwell countered with concerns about a computer spy network at city hall and said police had stopped him four times on groundless suspicions of impaired driving.

Denham’s report said the municipality failed to tell employees and elected officials about the amount of personal information it was collecting.

“One of the most disappointing findings in my investigation of the District of Saanich’s use of employee monitoring software is the near complete lack of awareness and understanding of the privacy provisions of B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act,” she said in the report.

Saanich installed monitoring software, enabling automated screen shots, keystroke logging and other monitoring tools “without considering how these actions would measure up to their privacy obligations under the law.”

Denham made five recommendations including destroying all data connected to a surveillance software called Spector 360 and disabling the software, which Saanich has already done. She also recommended the municipality appoint a privacy officer.

“Employees do not check their privacy rights at the office door,” she said. “There is a right to privacy in the workplace, which has been upheld by Canadian courts and must be respected by public bodies as they consider what security controls are necessary to protect information in government networks.”

Atwell, who was elected last November after defeating the former mayor who’d been in office for 18 years, said Saanich council will discuss Denham’s recommendations at its next meeting.

He said it was too early to discuss possible disciplinary actions resulting from the report’s findings, but he is confident the process will have broad benefits in terms of privacy awareness.

“I think we’ve actually improved things through this whole ordeal. It wasn’t the ideal way of doing it but I think as a result we’re going to have better government for all British Columbians.”

Saanich issued a statement saying it will implement the report’s recommendations.

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