Monday, April 18, 2005

Privacy Commisioner of Canada releases her report on the CIBC faxing incidents

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada has just released her report on the "CIBC faxing incident", in which faxes related to customers of the bank repeatedly were sent to a junk yard in West Virginia and Dorval, Quebec. The incident garnered a huge amount of press when the incidents came to light and CIBC faced a barrage of criticism for allowing it to continue unabated for three years. In her Incident Summary and Addendum (released today at 1:00 Eastern), the Commissioner found fault with the bank's practices that meant repeated incidents were never brought to the attention of senior management who were supposed to be responsible for the organization's privacy compliance. The Commissioner also criticises the bank for not informing customers that these incidents had taken place. (The Canadian media only became aware of it when the owner of the junk yard in West Virginia made it public.) The Commissioner also notes, in her press release, that
“simply publishing a privacy policy does not make a business privacy compliant. Organizations must ensure that all employees are aware of and adhere to privacy policies. When there are breaches, these must be brought to the immediate attention of the organization’s privacy officials,” said Ms. Stoddart. This did not happen with CIBC.

Organizations, large and small, must make sure that all employees are aware of their privacy obligations. There has to be a mechanism to ensure that all privacy-related incidents, large and small are brought to the attention of a senior officer, whose job includes constant awareness of the big picture and what is going on. The problem at CIBC was that each individual fax was a "minor incident" that was probably easy to dismiss as a "one off". When this happens hundreds of times, and nobody thinks to report it to senior management, it can quickly turn into a major disaster. There hasn't been any suggestion (yet) that anyone has been harmed as a result of this incident, but the bank has been working overtime to address customer concerns.

I still hear from business who think they are 100% compliant with Canada's privacy laws because they have a privacy policy or get customers to sign consent forms. That's a start, but it is a long way from compliance. I have yet to see a business end up on the front page for not having a privacy policy or for using the wrong form. The incidents that wind up causing huge problems are those caused by lack of training and awareness on the part of employees and a lack of a "culture of privacy" in the company.

The Commissioner also notes, in her press release:

In light of these events and other current investigations by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner into similar cases involving misdirected faxes within the banking sector, we strongly urge all organizations subject to PIPEDA to assess their policies and privacy management practices and address any shortcomings.

The current environment of identity theft and increased concern about privacy among the general public means that this is no longer an issue that businesses can afford to become complacent about. "Can this incident happen to us?" is a question that has to be asked. For too many businesses, the answer is yes and, for some, it is merely a matter of time.

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