Victorian Tribunal OK’s CenITex FOI refusal

The agency which provides IT services to the Victorian government has been let off the hook from an FOI request from the Age newspaper, with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) deciding the expensive and time-consuming job of restoring email and calendars from backup tapes was too onerous.

The Age was pursuing CenITex over its performance in 2011 when it blew its budget by $A20 million and an email blackout left thousands of public servants without email for up to a week

It requested all “Emails, letters, memos or summaries of complaints “relating to its services, from January 1, 2010 to October  2011. It also asked for copies of the electronic diaries of two senior staff. CenITex successfully argued that all its staff received complaints and therefore to comply the request it would have to restore all emails to and from over 1000 staff, over 1.5 million individual emails,

These live on monthly backup tapes at an offsite facility, and CenITex also claimed that it would not have sufficient hardware to restore these emails onto the Lotus Domino server in its data centre.

Mr Keith Cullen, IT Service Manager with CenITex, estimated that it would take 6-8 weeks to prepare the 33 monthly back-up tapes for restoration and another 35 days for the backup restoration process.

He also described a “domain search” that would need to be created to enable full text search capacity which for practical purposes could take place on only 3 months of restored tapes at a time. The configuration would take 4 hours per 3 months. The computer would finish the process, taking a number of days.

He also estimated that at least half of the 1.5 million emails were encrypted, which would necessitate the purchase of additional software for decryption and an additional 67 days work for each month’s email files, a total of 1462 working days for all

The total estimate given for the process of restoring the emails ready for processing varied widely, from 107-1902 work days at a cost between $A57,109 - $A970,252.

VCAT deputy President Heather Lambrick found “the timelines of 6-8 weeks for the preparatory phase of the restoration process to be somewhat overstated by CenITex. I found it unlikely that CenITex could not coordinate its staff and the Data Centre staff more efficiently than described by Mr Cullen. Nevertheless I accepted that there would be at least some days work involved in the preparatory phase.”

CenITex also claimed the process of examining all 1.5 million emails at the rate of 20 seconds per email to determine if they related to the FOI request would equate to 241 work weeks full time.

Cullen gave evidence that “the electronic calendars of the two former employees for the relevant 33 month period are located on mail files contained on the monthly backup tapes. They are not available on the online archive. To identify and locate the electronic calendar diaries, it would be necessary to go through the same restoration process described above. The restored mail files would then need to be interrogated to find the calendars on a monthly basis.”

VCAT’s Lambrick ruled that, “Whilst I accept that the hardware CenITex possesses is earmarked and used for the core services provided by CenITex, I found it surprising that CenITex, the Victorian Government’s centre for Information and Technology Excellence who would have expertise and experience in the recovery and restoration of back-ups, (which I would have expected it would perform on a regular basis on dedicated servers), would not have sufficient equipment for this request to be processed.

“I consider it unlikely that additional server equipment would need to be purchased.

“A significant amount of the time and expenditure described by Mr Cullen pertained to decryption. There was no basis given by Mr Cullen for assuming 50% of emails were encrypted. He simply did not know how many emails would be encrypted but assumed a large number. No samples were attempted as CenITex contended that having determined the process to be a substantial and unreasonable diversion of its resources that it need not proceed to process the request.

“Whilst I found the estimate of one hour per encrypted email to be staggering, I was not given any evidence to contradict the evidence of Mr Cullen, so am left to find that the process required and time frame as described by him is accurate. However there is no basis upon which I could find that as many as 50% of the emails would be encrypted.

“I accept in the circumstances of this case that the examination process would be of itself an extremely time-consuming one, however I am unable to make any real assessment of the time and resources required.

“The way in which the documents are stored means that they will need to be recovered. I accept that the emails would have to be processed on a server and that it would be a time consuming and labour intensive process.

“The ease with which the specific documents can be identified and assessed has been demonstrated to me to be no straightforward feat. Retrieval is a real and live issue because of the form in which the information is held. I accept that the information sought is not currently contained within discrete documents. Whilst this may be seen by the Age as unfortunate, the right of access is a right of access to existing documents. I find that the documents are stored in the manner described in the evidence before me and that the time in restoring and examining the documents would be great.

“I am satisfied that the identification, location and collation of the documents requested would be arduous in the manner described .... The checking of the backups would then be substantial and would take many months.

“Whilst the Age criticises the estimates given by CenITex the uncertainty works in both directions. It may be that CenITex has over-estimated some of the timeframes, but it may also prove that some of the timeframes were in reality underestimated. Whilst it may be that the processing of the requests would not in reality take years, I accept that it is more likely than not that the processing of the requests would run into many months rather than weeks.”

It upheld CenITex right to refuse access based on the exemption provided for in section 25A of the Victorian Freedom of Information Act, namely that “he work involved in processing the FOI requests would “substantially and unreasonably divert the resources of CenITex from its other operations.”