VICTORIA – Not since Environment Minister Barry Penner was caught with his hand on his BlackBerry in Question Period has the B.C. legislature been gripped by geek-speak, as it was last week.
Penner may have gained street cred last fall when he was warned by Speaker Bill Barisoff not to use his portable email device to pass an answer to Forest Minister Rich Coleman. Ministers are supposed to respond to opposition questions based on their knowledge, not the ability of unseen support staff to look things up for them.
Last week began with revelations that a collection of data storage tapes had been sold at an auction, with confidential health, immigration and other information still readable on them. Labour Minister Mike de Jong, who seems to be handling every government hot potato except labour these days, quickly apologized and promised to put an end to the sale of digital storage materials. De Jong acknowledged there had been “a screwup” and that it didn’t make sense to risk disclosure by trying to erase tapes that fetched about $100 at a government surplus auction.
But the opposition wasn’t done. The next day NDP House Leader Mike Farnworth was on his feet asking about a breach of the government’s secure computer network. He reeled off specifics: 78 computers in different ministries, access gained for two months, and the serial numbers of incident reports that had been provided to him. De Jong said he’d look into it.
At this point I fell back on a technical briefing I received last year, from my 17-year-old daughter. “Check this out, Dad,” she said, pointing to a screen filled with Cyrillic characters in a garish black-on-red layout, reminiscent of the early Soviet Central Red Army hockey uniforms. “My computer’s being used as a Russian porn server.”
Mercifully, the subject matter of this bit of digital piracy was not displayed as she updated her anti-spyware program to seek and repel the foreign invaders. She explained that spyware doesn’t just cause random damage, like viruses unleashed by basement weirdos to show off their computer hacking skills. Its purpose is to enslave the unsuspecting user’s computer, using its storage and processing capacity in the background to, er, service paying customers.
De Jong reluctantly confirmed the next day that government computers had indeed been pressed into service as, not Russian but Dutch porn servers. At least the government’s “security incident alert” of Feb. 3 identified a service provider in the Netherlands as the source of “hacker programs and movie files” found on 78 government workstations.
The NDP alleged that “high-level passwords” had been copied, and that hackers would have been able to read confidential personal data on government networks. De Jong said no such breach occurred. Who’s right?
The office of the Chief Information Officer says in its security alert that “no servers are affected” so chances are de Jong is right. It would be improper to store sensitive data on a workstation hard drive.
Farnworth wasn’t clear on passwords. NDP leader Carole James got her talking points mixed up with the previous day’s inquiry into the sale of the tapes. And de Jong admitted to reporters that he was at the mercy of technical experts on the issue, although he did get off a bit of high-tech humour in response to ministry critic Harry Lali’s claim of a coverup.
“I had a call the other day from someone who suggested we employ the new DBC-designed fifth-generation synaptic lockout technology with 4000 series mainframe interface,” de Jong deadpanned. “But of course I wouldn’t do that without first canvassing the views of the opposition critic.”
Tom Fletcher is B.C. bureau reporter for Black Press newspapers. email@example.com