Increase in data breach reports a good sign, says privacy commissioner

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Sensitive medical records found at a Fort Simpson landfill last month were created long before improvements to privacy legislation were introduced, says the territory’s information and privacy commissioner Elaine Keenan Bengts.

Municipalities ought to be under the territory’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act as public entities, said the NWT’s information and privacy commissioner Elaine Keenan Bengts at a Jan. 15 committee meeting in Yellowknife. Avery Zingel/NNSL photo
Municipalities ought to be under the territory’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act as public entities, said the NWT’s information and privacy commissioner Elaine Keenan Bengts at a Jan. 15 committee meeting in Yellowknife.
Avery Zingel/NNSL photo

There may be more improperly stored records around the territory, she said.

In mid December, Fort Simpson resident Randal Sibbeston found the health records of 134 individuals at a dump in Fort Simpson.

The records contained detailed information about patients’ health.The health department subsequently hired its own investigators to report on the Fort Simpson privacy breach, said Keenan Bengts. The recovered records are in her possession, she told a standing committee in the legislative assembly on Jan. 15.

Despite a glut of “negative publicity” directed at the territorial health department over the dumped records and other breaches such as the theft of a laptop containing health data of 80 per cent of the territory’s residents last summer, the commissioner is “pleased with the actions of the department to address privacy concerns,” she said.

After the Health Information Act came into force in 2015, the number investigations into data breaches skyrocketed from eight in 2016 to 33 in 2017. Twenty-two of the 33 files were breach notifications, many of which were the result of misdirected faxes.

“The increase in reports shows custodians are recognizing breaches when they happened and identifying how they happened to prevent breaches that are similar in the future,” she said.

Bengts said health professionals should ditch fax technology in favour of encrypted emails.

Misdirected faxes are a problem across the health profession in Canada, she said, and in an age where data is a commodity, properly protecting it is increasingly important.

The internet has created an economic model where information is exchanged for services. It creates a “bias in favour of disclosure,” states the commissioner’s latest report.

“For some reason the medical profession is reluctant to accept more secure technology. I don’t think it’s any worse here than anywhere else in Canada but we do need to do something to change it,” said Bengts.

Although communities rely on faxes where the internet is unreliable, the main barrier is a reluctance to change old ways in the health profession, said Keenan Bengts.

“The biggest problem here is the medical profession itself,” she said. “If you can convince senior nurses and doctors that is just as easy to send an encrypted email as it is to stand up, walk to the fax machine, put it on the machine, send it and sit back down … it makes no sense to me, but I’m not in the business. It’s hard to change something that has been happening for 50 years.”

Bengts hopes the newest cohort of medical school grads will be more open to newer technology.

Sahtu MLA Daniel McNeely suggested the government use its resources to allow new technology to be used.

“In the nursing station in Fort Good Hope I hear directly from the staff that they are not connected. When I go to Tulita, I hear the same thing. So why isn’t this government utilizing its own resources and assets to improve the system from aging mechanics of a fax machine which, in some offices, no longer exist?” he said.

Larger centres like Yellowknife are still using fax machines, said Keenan Bengts.

“This isn’t happening only because of communities misdirecting faxes. These problems are happening in Yellowknife and in large communities as well,” she said.

“You have to change the way the medical profession does its business,” she said.

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