Saturday, March 04, 2006

Incident: British Columbia government actioned off surplus backup tapes with sensitive health information

I am currently in Vancouver on a business trip, woke up early and stumbled to the nearest Starbucks for my morning coffee and saw the headline "HEALTH RECORDS SOLD AT PUBLIC AUCTION" screaming out from the Saturday Vancouver Sun.

The Saturday Sun is reporting that last year, the BC department responsible for disposing of surplus equipment sold a batch of 41 computer backup tapes along with other equipment that contained incredibly sensitve personal information. The tapes contained the records of individuals who were seeking financial assistance from the provincial government because physical and mental health conditions (such as HIV and sexual abuse issues) were preventing them from working, generated by the Ministry of Social Services and the Ministry of Human Resources. The buyer of the tapes perused their content and later contacted the newspaper.

In addition to the records containing social insurance numbers and medical conditions, there were also hundreds of what appeared to be caseworker entries divulging extremely intimate details of people's lives.

One of those entries details a letter from a woman whose daughter was sexually abused, which provides the woman's name.

"Re: her daughter . . . sexually abused by a tenant living in the basement of her house," said the entry, which was logged in 1996. "No mental handicap . . . RCMP involved."

Because of the sensitive nature of the information, The Vancouver Sun will not publish any details that would directly identify any of the people involved.

Another entry, which included the person's name and phone number, contained the following.

"Wants to recover back pay from MSS because she did not know she had to have a Dr.'s note . . . was beaten by her boyfriend . . . wanting for money from WCB but in the meantime wants to pay her bills."

Among the other files there was also a document containing more than 65,000 names along with corresponding social insurance numbers, birthdays and what appeared to be amounts paid to each person for social support and shelter.

The information on the tapes were completely unencrypted and no special software was required to read them. A tech expert consulted by the paper said that a Windows desktop PC probably could have read them. Apparently no effort whatsoever was made to delete the contents.

Needless to say, the BC Privacy Commissioner's Office is investigating the appalling breach of privacy.

For the full story check out the main article and the two sidebars:

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Note: Edited to remove image of font-page, which has cycled to show a different graphic.

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