POLITICS

B.C. privacy watchdog to look over district software to ensure legal compliance

01/20/2015 05:43 EST | Updated 03/22/2015 05:59 EDT
VICTORIA - A mayor's allegation that spyware is monitoring the computers at a Vancouver Island municipal hall is now under investigation by British Columbia's privacy watchdog.

Elizabeth Denham announced in a news release Tuesday she has been watching developments in Saanich, B.C., and has decided on her own initiative to investigate whether the software complies with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The decision follows a Jan. 12 news conference where embattled Mayor Richard Atwell alleged his computer was bugged and police had stopped him four times on groundless suspicions of drunk driving.

At the same media event, Atwell admitting to lying when he denied having an extra-marital affair.

Saanich council responded to Atwell's claims later, saying the software was installed on computers last November with the intention to protect against external threats and monitor internal activity.

"We need the facts concerning implementation of the software, including what methods of data capture have been enabled and the extent to which personal information is being collected from employees," said Denham, who is the information and privacy commissioner.

She said her office has the power to compel the disclosure of documents, interview officials, make legal findings and issue compliance orders and she expects to finish her probe by the end of March.

The findings will be made public, she said.

Denham was not granting interviews Tuesday, and neither Atwell nor members of council responded to requests for comment.

In a news release issued earlier this month, the District of Saanich said the Spector 360 software was purchased in November and installed onto a group of computers, including one used by the mayor, to deter theft, leaks of data and protect high-profile users.

"This software is a user activity monitoring solution that enables companies to log, retain, review and report on activity," said the document.

"Spector 360 creates a definitive record of digital behaviour, and in doing so provides organizations with the ability to monitor internal activity that may result from external threats."

The chief administrative officer or director of corporate services could authorize a review of the data, the district said, adding that process had yet to be activated.

In December, a month after Atwell was elected, he unilaterally forced out chief administrative officer Paul Murray, a move that cost taxpayers about $480,000 in severance.

Earlier this month, the mayor alleged that police leaked details of an altercation involving himself and the fiance of a supporter. He accused police of harassment and district staff of spying, lodged a complaint with the police complaint commissioner, and ran into conflict with his own police board.

The province's Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said she would keep an eye on the situation but declined to investigate Atwell's behaviour.

Atwell replaced former Saanich mayor Frank Leonard who held the office for 18 years.

-- by Keven Drews in Vancouver