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Size of B.C. breach ‘especially troubling,’ says privacy commissioner

B.C.’s privacy commissioner has launched her own independent investigation into the largest privacy breach in the province’s history.
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Privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

B.C.’s privacy commissioner has launched her own independent investigation into the largest privacy breach in the province’s history.

Elizabeth Denham declined interviews Tuesday, but issued a statement confirming that she was notified last week about the loss of an unencrypted hard drive containing information on 3.4 million students and teachers.

She said her probe will address the “very serious privacy issues” and recommend steps to prevent further breaches.

“It is deeply concerning to learn about another case of a major privacy breach involving unencrypted data,” she said.

Denham called the magnitude of the breach “especially troubling” given the numbers of students involved.

Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said the sensitive nature of the material on the drives adds to the concern.

“Some of the personal information that was on this hard drive is pretty intimate stuff,” he said, noting that in some cases it included whether students were in government care or had received psychiatric assessments.

“It’s hard to think of more intimate personal details than that.”

Gogolek said the government appears to be putting a brave face on the problem by saying that the risk of identify theft is low.

“But at the same time, they can’t tell us where it is,” he said.

“Maybe it’s fallen behind a filing cabinet in a ministry office somewhere, but maybe somebody’s got it and they’re just waiting to use it.

“We don’t know, and neither do they.”

NDP education critic Rob Fleming said the “shocking” breach should shake the public’s confidence in Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services Minister Amrik Virk and the Liberal government.

“It’s too late for a review,” he said. “His job is to protect the privacy of British Columbians, and today is an admission that British Columbians can’t rely on this government to ensure that their personal records are kept safe and secure.”

Jim Iker, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, said the breach heightens ongoing concerns about the increased collection of student information by the government.

He noted that the Liberals have replaced the old student-information system with MyEducationBC, which has had a rocky launch.

“The government is planning to collect even more and more data and maintain centralized databases,” he said. “So we have to ask ourselves: Why is government insisting on collecting more and more data? How is it secured? … And at what point in time will this data be destroyed?”

Iker said former students should not have to worry that personal information could be released 25 years later and cause them harm.

“That’s a huge concern for us as we go ahead with MyEducationBC,” he said.

Simka Marshall, chairperson of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Federation of Students, said the government needs to be held to account.

“This breach constitutes a failure to uphold the most elementary rules of data security,” she said in a release.

“Losing one-quarter-century’s worth of private information that includes students’ grades, mental-health assessments, student-loan data, and other personal details is simply inexcusable.”

lkines@timescolonist.com