Wednesday, March 8th, 2006

The government of British Columbia recently sold some old surplus computer tapes, unfortunately without erasing them first.  So a lot of private data on citizens was still on the tapes.  Read here one of the reports on this.  This is quite the screw-up, but I also was amazed that the press apparently chose to examine the tapes in detail, and publish confidential information, although they didn’t reveal names.  I responded to the media chain with the following letter:

It is disturbing that the Provincial Government does not have in place safeguards to ensure that personal information is kept confidential.  I hope this breach will be fixed immediately so it cannot occur again, and the individuals responsible are held accountable.

And there appears to be a further violation: a lack of respect and integrity shown by CanWest, and possibly the tape buyer.  Someone has gone through this private information in detail.  Worse, reporters are choosing to write about (and editors choosing to print) confidential information protected under the Personal Information and Privacy Act.  CanWest publications have said, “Due to the sensitive nature of the information, [this paper] will not identify any people named in the files on the tapes,” as if this is a statement of integrity.  I think not.

Some questions arise: Have copies been made of this information?  How many people are looking at it?  Did the buyer get paid by CanWest for data he didn’t own?  (He bought the media from the government, not the data.)

I understand that the buyer wanted to ensure the government was held accountable; hopefully that was the motivation for sending the information to a third party.  However this could have been done by contacting the police, a lawyer or the privacy commissioner, without examining the information in detail.

I believe the hidden story here is the potentially illegal use of private information shown by the press, and I hope Mr. Loukidelis’s office will be thoroughly investigating this as well.