British Columbians can be thankful that only the provincial government acted wrongly in the treatment of 41 sensitive computer tapes, according to the executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, Darrell Evans.
One set of records, bought by a citizen for $101, includes the personal medical history of thousands of British Columbians, such as whether they have suffered from mental illness or have HIV. As well, dates of birth, driver’s license numbers, Medical Service Plan numbers and financial information were in the records.
Also part of that sale were a number of BlackBerrys containing personal information.
Other records, which sold for about $300, contain names, social insurance numbers and other information concerning 30,000 refugees.
“No one was reckless with this information except the government,” Evans said in an interview.
The records could have been used to steal personal identities, as well as to restrict citizens’ rights, Evans added: “You could easily have blackmailed someone-that’s how powerful this information is.”
Because no actual harm was done by the sale, the incident may prove to have been a blessing in disguise, he said.
“There needs to be a cultural change within both the public sector and the private sector regarding respect for people’s private information,” Evans said. “We’ve got to practise safe information procedures.”
He added that citizens must be in a higher state of awareness of the power of their personal information: “We’re in a new era.”
The sale occurred in Surrey, B.C. in July, 2005, but was brought to light only on March 4 after the purchaser turned the tapes over to the Vancouver Sun. The newspaper eventually returned the tapes to the government, and destroyed any copies it had made.
Labour and Citizens’ Services Minister Mike de Jong, who is responsible for the government’s information policies, subsequently banned the sale of all computers and related media.
In his March 24 report, B.C. Chief Information Officer Dave Nikolejsin found that the sale of the tapes occurred due to a combination of procedural and human errors.
“A lack of checks and balances within the system allowed these errors to compound, resulting in the release of personal and sensitive information,” Nikolejsin wrote in his report.
In an interview, Nikolejsin said he is pleased that the government has accepted all 10 of his recommendations, which include continuing the ban on the sale of all media storage devices, and considering the encryption of government data on BlackBerrys and laptops.
Asked whether he is confident that another similar leak would not happen again, Nikolejsin replied: “We’re no better off than when it happened. But the point of the recommendations is that when we’re done implementing them, then I will be able to say, yes, we’re at a better point than when we started.”
Government policies were generally not to blame for the release of the records, he said.
“We have some quite good policy, but there’s some significant gaps in how well it’s implemented,” Nikolejsin said, “and the challenge becomes closing those gaps.”
He added that there are many incidents of inappropriate access to computer records– especially in the private sector–many of which are never reported.
“There’s lots of things, I can assure you, that are going on that we never hear about,” Nikolejsin said, adding that the incidents that are publicized about typically relate to breaches of privacy.
The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association’s Evans said that privacy advocates need to maintain their vigilance.
“The bureaucrats would love to dump all of this information into one big file,” Evans said. “That’s not a good thing, because of its enormous power.”