Saturday, December 4, 2010

FOI success at LFP

I was so happy to see this hit the web Friday night, and it fronts today's London Free Press. Education reporter Jen O'Brien submitted a request under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act for e-mails relating to an online security breach of the Thames Valley District School Board's student portal earlier this fall. A 15-year-old wunderkid, whose own questions and warnings were apparently ignored by the board, broke the security on the portal and then posted the full list of usernames and passwords on Facebook. The move caused some ruckus at the board as the portal was first taken down and then tens of thousands of students were forced to change their other online passwords to protect themselves. The teen is now facing charges.
Having fought this particular board on previous FOI requests and served in an advisory capacity on at least one other request, this release is fantastic. It appears that in its urge to line up all the public relations and internal ducks before publicly releasing and responding to the security breach, administrators likely didn't think someone outside the board would end up reading those e-mails.
This no doubt will embarrass some at 1250 Dundas St. in London, starting with the public affairs and community relations people (both prominent former journalists from London media) who, per the e-mails, were shaping messages instead of calling the cops.
Given a fairly significant slip by this same department at the very beginning of the Tori Stafford disappearance in 2009 (she was abducted and murdered after leaving a Thames Valley school to walk home) and how this breach was handled, part of me wonders if the new board of trustees might not be left wondering about its communicators.
In the meantime, I'm sure other boards have taken note. School boards, though not subject to investigation by the Ontario ombudsman (that's an entirely different issue) are subject to freedom-of-information requests. They have to comply with the legislation. When you cough up your $5 you need to be prepared for a fight, but your tenacity is often rewarded.
As school boards become aware of this it's a double-edged sword-- the very e-mails that so compellingly form the foundation of the Free Press' article today would start to disappear as people learn they can be requested and must be released. While the ultimate goal of the release might be to change behaviour, it may only end up changing it to the point it moves even further into the shadows.
Already shared my appreciation with O'Brien earlier, but it fully deserves mention in this space as well.