‘Spyware’ on mayor’s computer rare in B.C.’s large local governments

None of B.C.’s large municipal governments and regional districts use employee surveillance software similar to what the District of Saanich recently installed on its mayor’s computer, the Times Colonist has found.

A survey of 25 municipalities with populations of 75,000 or more — including Vancouver, Victoria, Abbotsford, Surrey, Langley, Richmond, Burnaby and Nanaimo — reveals none use surveillance software that can covertly capture keystrokes and screen images. Municipalities surveyed have populations similar to or higher than Saanich’s 111,000. The provincial government also said it does not use software that covertly monitors workers.

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An exception is the Capital Regional District, which said it has used monitoring software Spector 360 as part of an investigation of an employee in a personnel issue.

“We have used Spector 360 as a tool where employee conduct was being questioned. This would require very senior [management] to sign off to conduct that, like the head of human resources and IT,” said CRD spokesman Andy Orr.

“We do not gather information in a general way or for general application in other situations, that is broad or targeted.”

The software is not currently installed on anyone’s computer, he said. The CRD also uses GPS to track devices, in case they are lost.

B.C. information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham said this week that she would investigate Saanich’s use of monitoring software on municipal computers, including that of Mayor Richard Atwell, who was sworn in Dec. 1 after winning the Nov. 15 election.

Atwell called attention to the issue when he complained about Saanich’s use of monitoring software. He told reporters that “spyware” called Spector 360, made by SpectorSoft, was installed on his municipal computer in December, without his knowledge or consent.

The mayor took his complaint to Saanich Police Chief Bob Downie on Dec. 15.

In a statement, the municipality said monitoring software was recommended in an independent audit in May (it won’t make the report public, citing privacy law). It purchased Spector 360 on Nov. 21 and the software was “installed onto an initial group of key computers, including the mayor’s office computer.”

The municipality has said Atwell was given a consent form when his computer was installed on Dec. 2 and that he didn’t sign it.

Police concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing.

Atwell has asked the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner to investigate whether Saanich police were in conflict because Downie’s wife is an assistant to the mayor and also had Spector 360 installed on her computer. “I’m going to co-operate and I hope the District of Saanich co-operates with the investigation,” Atwell said.

Denham has the power to compel disclosure, make legal findings, and issue compliance orders or recommendations for change. Her findings, which are expected in March, will be made public.

Privacy and security expert Kris Constable said monitoring software that captures keystrokes and screen images is typically used only in high-security environments or as part of an investigation.

Some local governments in B.C. block certain websites, such as those with pornography. In the Regional District of North Okanagan, access to Facebook is blocked, said David Sewell, RDNO’s chief administrative officer.

Others have some form of monitoring, remote access, or the ability to log websites visited. But all of them say they do not use software that covertly monitors keystrokes and captures screen images, similar to what Spector 360 offers.

“Absolutely not … nothing of the sort,” said Douglas Rae, director of finance for Thompson-Nicola Regional District.

The province regards software such as Spector 360 to be too invasive and doesn’t use it on employee computers.

“It’s very aggressive and invasive and active,” said Melody Wey, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services. “Most large responsible organizations use forensic software that’s reactive, not actively monitoring an employee. It can be used and activated when needed.”


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