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Federal government limits public servants’ network access as it races to increase work-from-home technology capacity

Digital Government Minister Joyce Murray speaking in the House of Commons in May 2019.
Digital Government Minister Joyce Murray speaking in the House of Commons in May 2019. The Canadian Press/Justin Tang
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The federal government is limiting public servants’ access to its networks as it races to increase its technological capacity to accommodate potentially tens of thousands of remote workers amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Talking Point

As an increasing number of federal public servants are given the option to work from home, several major departments are instructing staff to stay off internal networks and VPN systems to avoid overwhelming them. Shared Services Canada, the government IT agency, is talking to suppliers about buying more software licences, switching and routing hardware and bandwidth.  

For now, several departments have instructed staff to limit their use of the virtual private network (VPN) system, which allows secure access to internal files and applications. Shared Services Canada, the government IT agency, is also enforcing strict controls on what users can do online, and for how long.

On Monday, the Treasury Board Secretariat, which acts as the employer for the 220,310-person core federal public service, said government staff should “telework wherever and whenever possible.” The directive instructed managers to consider allowing members of their teams not to come into the office.

Separately, the Treasury Board’s internal IT directorate emailed department employees on Sunday night asking that they try to work as much as possible without connecting to the Government of Canada Secure Remote Access system, the VPN provided by Shared Services. Staff were instructed to “save files locally” to their devices before leaving the office and avoid “large data transfers such as large graphically intense decks, images, PDFs, etc.” 

The email, which The Logic has viewed, also instructs staff to enable airplane mode on devices when they don’t need to be on the network, since they connect to the VPN automatically, and to not use video-streaming services like YouTube. It recommends using mobile phones for email and video conferencing. “This is a unique and exceptional circumstance that falls outside of our normal service delivery capacity,” it says.

But according to a government source, the VPN capacity issues are longstanding and widely known within the public service. Staff experienced intermittent service during previous incidents in the national capital region, such as a February snowstorm and flooding in April 2019, said the source, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Shared Services “estimates that it can support remote access for essential public servants in order to support essential services for Canadians,” spokesperson Jamey Gill told The Logic, although he did not specify a number. Departments are responsible for managing the fixed VPN capacity they’re given. Gill said Shared Services has passed on some best practices, citing several measures contained in the Treasury Board internal email. It is enforcing “auto timeout on idle VPN connection” and limiting video streaming, while departments are blocking non-essential sites like personal social media accounts. 

Several departments have suggested similar network access behaviour to that in the Treasury Board email. A Department of National Defence directive issued Friday notes that only “staff conducting essential core activities” should use its VPN system from home. Public Services and Procurement Canada published a notice Tuesday evening instructing staff to use “public cloud services via personal computer … to collaborate with colleagues on unclassified work,” citing FaceTime and Slack, among other examples, and Cisco’s Jabber for instant messaging. And Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada has reportedly asked some employees to get what they need from the network between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET every night, and use personal email for tasks involving unclassified information.

“Work is underway to increase remote access and network capabilities to support remote access for a large portion of the public service,” said Sarah McMaster, director of communications for Digital Government Minister Joyce Murray. Shared Services will be giving some mobile devices to some users such as executives and communications teams, and has surveyed departments on what more they need to help employees work from home.

The agency is also working with suppliers to shore up its network capacity, Gill said. Shared Services is reconfiguring software, trying to increase bandwidth and purchasing extra software licences and hardware to allow remote access. It will also try to acquire more switching and routing hardware, network links and systems for managing traffic.

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