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BlackBerry Messenger is one of the products on which BlackBerry, the ailing smartphone maker, is basing its revival. And the government of Canada, which has about 98,000 BlackBerrys in service, remains one of the company’s last strongholds.
Last week, however, the messaging service and the government came together in an unfortunate way. The independent commissioner responsible for Canada’s equivalent of Freedom of Information laws recommended that the government switch off B.B.M., as it is known.
In a lengthy report, Suzanne Legault, the information commissioner, found that B.B.M. was being used in a way to keep messages from and between bureaucrats away from public view, contrary to the law.
“There is a real risk that information that should be accessible by requesters is being irremediably deleted or lost,” she wrote, referring to requests made under open-information law. “No valid operational requirement was provided to me to justify this risk.”
Ms. Legault’s investigation began last year when one bureaucrat asked another in an email to continue their correspondence through B.B.M. That followed numerous cases in which her office found that there were few or no email records related to significant issues.
Her staff members discovered that in the vast majority of government departments, B.B.M. messages were erased every 30 days. Given that the government has 30 days to respond to requests for information, a deadline that Ms. Legault’s office has found it rarely meets, the instant messages generally vanish before anyone can obtain them.
While Ms. Legault’s study does not directly state the point, it is an open secret in Ottawa that B.B.M. is the medium of choice when bureaucrats wish to keep their communications hidden from view. Several parliamentary journalists have said that leaked information is often delivered by B.B.M.. (Politicians’ messages of all kinds are exempt from the Canadian information law.)
Because the law requires the government to retain “any documentary material, regardless of medium or form,” Ms. Legault initially asked the government to archive its instant messages on servers, as it does with email. But it declined, citing the cost of both storage and the burden of searching old messages to complete access to information requests. So the government adopted an honor system that requires individual users to personally archive any instant messages they believe are related to government business.
Given that position, Ms. Legault concluded that the only alternative was shutting down BlackBerry Messenger service on government phones.
Tony Clement, the cabinet minister in the Conservative government who is responsible for government technology, flatly rejected that idea. Unless Parliament unexpectedly overturns Mr. Clement’s formal rejection of what he called a “nonsensical recommendation,” bureaucrats can continue to use the service. The bureaucrats who risk seeming unpatriotic by using anything other than a BlackBerry are also in luck. The company recently introduced apps that allow B.B.M. use on iPhones and Android-based phones.