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Privacy

BC mistakenly sells health record tapes

VICTORIA – The government of British Columbia accidentally auctioned off computer tapes containing thousands of personal records of members of the public, including information about medical conditions, social insurance numbers and dates of birth.

According to a report in the Vancouver Sun, the B.C. government sold off 41 high-capacity data tapes at an auction in Surrey, in 2005, for $300. The files included the medical status of some B.C. residents – including whether they have a mental illness, HIV or a substance-abuse problem. Also included were details of applications for social assistance, and whether or not people are fit to work.

“This should never happen,” Mary Carlson, director of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of B.C., told the Vancouver Sun. “There are dignity issues involved in a lot of these disclosures,” she said, pointing to things such as HIV status and a need to apply for social assistance.

In an interview with the Sun, Labour Minister Mike de Jong, whose ministry oversees the auction process, said he has ordered an immediate investigation to determine how the breach took place.

“It is completely unacceptable for information like this to be unsecured in the way this clearly is,” he said.

“People deserve to know [this] type of information . . . is secure and kept private,” he added, offering an apology. “I can think of no excuse for information of this sort finding its way into the public domain. “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.

The files on the tapes appear to have been created between 1995 and 2001 and appear to have come from the Ministry of Human Resources and the Ministry of Social Services.

The person who bought the reusable tapes says he intended to sell them as blanks for a profit, and only recently discovered they were filled with information. He gave the tapes to The Vancouver Sun out of concern that other information might not be properly destroyed, and did so on the condition of anonymity.

De Jong could not say exactly what happened, but said there are standards in place and that he wants to find out immediately what went wrong.” I want ministry officials to work closely with the privacy commissioner to do what can be done now to retrieve and secure the information and also to begin an exhaustive examination of how this happened,” he said. “There are a strict set of guidelines that are in place governing the storage of information and also governing the disposal of assets.”

 

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