One-Stop Shopping for Criminals
by Lorne Gunter

PUBLICATION: National Post
DATE: 2006.03.20
COLUMN: Lorne Gunter

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters set off a minor firestorm two weeks ago when it released an advance copy of its April newsletter, Hotline. The issue contains an interview with John Hicks, former Webmaster for the Canadian Firearms Centre (CFC), who contends that anyone with a home computer, an Internet connection and a little patience can hack into the national firearms database and find out who owns guns, where they live and what makes and models they possess.

Sort of a one-stop-shopping service for criminals.

To Hicks and other critics, the CFC counters that its computers are as secure as the RCMP's.

But after months of freedom-of-information requests from Saskatchewan Conservative MP Garry Breitkreuz, the Mounties were forced last year to admit they haven't got up-to-date statistics in this area. Their most recent numbers show 306 illegal breaches of the national police database between 1995 and 2003, 121 of which were unsolved at last report.

The CFC's reassurances aren't very reassuring at all. A vast national catalogue of firearms --enough to outfit several dozen street gangs, biker gangs and drug operations -- is only as secure as a system that has been hacked an average of nearly 40 times a year; and which in 40% of cases no one is caught.

Since last fall, there have been half a dozen high-profile gun thefts from shops and collectors' homes in southern Ontario, and unconfirmed reports of nearly 20 more in and around Edmonton.

While there is no proof of a connection between the CFC's hackable computers and these break-ins, it's not hard to imagine that after Ottawa spent billions compiling information on millions of guns in a
single database, thieves found it convenient to penetrate the firewall and compile a wish list.

So far, computers have been the largest single known cost of the federal gun-control scheme. (I say "known," because even after eight years, the government still refuses to release any information on enforcement costs.)

Ottawa has already spent or announced spending of $527-million on firearms computers -- or more precisely, on computer failures. There have been 133 computer contracts or amendments made in the last decade to five different companies.

Despite this massive expenditure, no company has been able to make the system work right.

Two companies or consortia have had the biggest contracts -- EDS Canada Inc. and Team Centra, a joint project of CGI Group and BDP Business Data Services Ltd., and later Resolve Corp.

In 2002, after throwing $151-million at EDS without success, the firearms centre gave Team Centra the task of registering just 1.9 million owners and seven million known guns. So far, Team Centra has
chewed through an estimated $100-million.

Some of this is not the contractor's fault. For more than two years after its winning bid, Team Centra watched as the Liberal government dithered over what legislative changes it would make to the registry. During that time, programmers had to design multiple variations of the final system to be ready for whatever laws were finally adopted. It wasn't until February, 2005, that Ottawa's final requirements became clear.

In December last year, Team Centra was finally ready to test run its elaborate new system. According to a source inside the firearms centre, the contractor "flew in folks from around Canada with the intention they would stay in Ottawa and do testing for six weeks."

"After one day, all were sent home because the application crashed over 90 times with over 30 Severity-1 crashes."

The source explains that "a Severity-1 crash typically indicates the application has stopped with a fatal error and further processing is not possible without restarting the application." The CFC's computers had to be turned off and turned back on again 30 times. In one day.

A chief provincial firearms officer who witnessed the debacle later told his superiors, "Only one transaction could be completed; that being a transfer of a firearm from a business to an individual." But even in that one, no background check was performed on the buyer, no verification that he was fit to own a gun. "Additionally, there was no 'audit trail' for the transaction."

Rather than making Canada safer by letting police know where most of the guns are, the registry may be making the country more dangerous by letting criminals know, instead. Your tax dollars at work.