In early January, 2013, over half a million young Canada professionals awoke to discover—via online newspaper or blog most likely—that the personal information they handed over to the government as part of their university student loan application had been compromised. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) admitted that anyone who was a client of the Canada Student Loans programs from 2000 to 2006 was at risk. More recently, in April 2013, the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization (IIROC) admitted that the personal information of 52,000 clients from dozens of investment firms had equally been compromised. In both cases massive reputational damage and high-profile lawsuits has ensued.
How did this happen, you might wonder?
Surely, the 2011 Sony data breach, among others, taught organizations about the importance of cybersecurity. Indeed, the problem was not one of cybersecurity—the networks remained secure. Rather, the reason why HRSDC and IIROC are under such scrutiny is for a much simpler, dumber reason. The personal information in question, in both cases, was left on unencrypted, portable hard drives that went missing. Possibly lost, presumably stolen, but I repeat: unencrypted portable hard drives.
These stories are perfect examples of why high-level privacy oversight via policies and procedures are meaningless without appropriate enforcement mechanisms. In this case, the most appropriate enforcement mechanism might have been as easy a thing as proper employee training.
Consider for a moment storing personal information in the cloud via a third-party host. No organization worth its weight in terrabytes would ever contract out such a project without airtight contractual provisions demanding appropriate security measures and permitting monitoring. Such provisions emphasize to third parties the importance of securely hosting information in the cloud to prevent data breaches similar to Sony. If the security is weak and the data is stolen, the third party could be liable.
But when personal information is stored on a physical hard drive, maybe as small as a USB key, who is to blame when it gets lost?
It may very well be that these organizations had weak policies or procedures, which did not call for encrypting devices—another problem altogether—but even taking for granted effective policies and procedures, employees need to build privacy into their daily routines. For that to happen, employers need to train them. Policies and procedures need to be enforced.
To prove that this problem is not isolated to HRSDC and IIROC—if the fact that such high-profile incidents happened so closely together didn’t imply it—one need look no further than Alberta. In Alberta, organizations must report all material privacy breaches to anyone who may have been affected by the breach. The province’s information and privacy commissioner regularly publishes reports concluding whether a privacy breach warrants this type of notification. From the program’s inception in 2010 to early 2013, there were 13 privacy breaches involving a stolen or lost hard drive or laptop. In most cases, the device or laptop in question was not encrypted. In 7 of those cases, the device or laptop was not even password protected.
The bottom line is that organizations that collect personal information need to have mature privacy programs, which includes proper policies and procedures, and also fully functional enforcement mechanisms. It is 2013—we should not be discovering in our local online newspapers or blogs that unencrypted devices with personal information mysteriously went missing.