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Source: The Star Phoenix

Posted on October 15, 2010

The biggest threat to the security of Canadians' personal information, especially their medical records, isn't from computer hackers, it would seem, but from those within the bureaucracy who access and share these records for personal or political purposes.

And until governments begin to treat these grievous abuses as among the most serious crimes that public officials can commit against citizens, instead of merely fobbing them off as matters to be negotiated via privacy officials, the breaches will only continue to escalate.

Saskatchewan residents are familiar with the ridiculous situation this summer that saw two fired workers in the health system reinstated after arbitration rulings that found the punishment too harsh for snooping through others' medical records. The justification was that the offenders, both of them well aware of privacy provisions, weren't being malicious in breaching the law and didn't do it for profit or criminal purposes.

As Saskatchewan's Privacy Commissioner Gary Dickson so aptly noted then: "In my experience, it's cold and empty comfort to the violated patient whose information has been collected, used or disclosed unlawfully, to be informed that the perpetrator was not an identity thief."

It will be interesting, indeed, to see how Mr. Dickson's federal counterpart will treat the latest egregious case of privacy violations in Ottawa, this one involving dozens of bureaucrats within the Veterans Affairs ministry who were amassing ammunition against an outspoken critic of government policy.

According to the Canadian Press report, department officials collected highly personal medical, psychiatric and financial information on veterans' advocate Sean Bruyea, and complied it in a 13-page briefing note prepared in 2006 for then-minister Greg Thompson. Mr. Bruyea uncovered the documents as part of a 14,000-page response to a request he filed under the Privacy Act.

The activist became a pain in the rear to bureaucrats and to the former Liberal government in 2005, when the ministry was drafting the new Veterans Charter -- a project the Conservatives inherited in 2006.

Among the concerns Mr. Bruyea was raising was the proposal to replace veterans' pensions with a lump-sum payment and some monthly stipends, and what he felt was the injustice being done to ordinary soldiers who'd been wounded in the line of duty, those with families and the most severely disabled veterans. Incidentally, these are the very provisions addressed by the Conservative government last week with $2-billion reform to the new charter.

Apparently, bureaucrats felt that the activist was getting in their way, as they got busy dredging up Mr. Bruyea's personal records for the purposes of character assassination.

Senior ministry official Darragh Morgan's comments, found in the documents, are chilling: "Folks, it's time to take the gloves off here," he suggests.

"It's not that this person is spreading misinformation for his own purposes. It's that this is by now creating grave doubts among soldiers who now need to know their government backs them. Snooze, ya lose, comes to mind. Let's do something here."

What the officials did end up doing was to delve into Mr. Bruyea's pension records, the medical services he was receiving as a veteran and even part of a psychiatric report that warned his mental condition was deteriorating and he was experiencing suicide ideation. (Mr. Bruyea agreed to media making his information public.)

Incredibly, the CP story notes that 614 persons within Veterans Affairs accessed the files on Mr. Bruyea, contained in a password-protected database, between 2001 and 2010. Of those, 156 exchanged varying amounts of personal information on the activist. The material also was shared with an additional 243 persons, including Liberal and Conservative political staffers via briefing notes and emails.

It's not enough for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to now blame everything on the former Liberal administration and leave the matter to the federal privacy watchdog. And it's not enough for Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn simply to echo his boss.

He needs to find out who in his department is responsible for this breach and take strong disciplinary action, and make sure such practices still aren't going on.

It doesn't serve anyone's interest to further erode Canadians' confidence in the privacy of information governments amass on them via everything from tax filings to health records to passport applications.

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