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Source: Winnipeg Free Press

Posted on July 18, 2011

Saskatchewan's privacy commissioner says the province is "bedevilled" by a large number of intrusions into people's personal information.

Gary Dickson said in his annual report released Monday that his office opened 47 investigations into privacy breaches at government institutions over the last year.

"What we often find is that it's not somebody hacking into a database," said Dickson.

"It's typically a lack of care. It's carelessness on the part of organizations that are entrusted with personal information, and then curiosity of staff who can't seem to overcome the temptation to go and snoop in somebody else's health records or somebody else's personal information, which means a huge training effort has to happen in our province.

"We're certainly making some headway, but we simply have too many organizations in Saskatchewan in 2011 that aren't doing an appropriate job protecting personal information."

Dickson said he believes the pattern will continue until there are serious consequences for those who break privacy laws.

The maximum fine under Saskatchewan's 19-year-old Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act is $1,000. By comparison, breaking the province's Health Information Protection Act can mean a fine of up to $50,000 for an individual and $500,000 fine for an organization.

But, Dickson noted, no one has ever been prosecuted under either of those acts. It's a long-standing concern for the commissioner.

"We're not going to have the level of compliance ... that I think Saskatchewan residents are entitled to until there are particularly serious consequences," he said. "(We need) ... people being charged under an offence provision and a court process and then at the end of that, if somebody's found guilty, substantial fines."

Saskatchewan Justice Minister Don Morgan said Dickson is right. Penalties for privacy breaches are "quite light," but so far nothing has met prosecutorial standards, he said.

"I think before we undertake a major review of the act, there's a few things that should take place. One would be two or three prosecutions so we have a sense whether we need to change anything with regard to what the criteria might be for a successful prosecution," Morgan said in a phone interview from Saskatoon.

"All pieces of legislation need to be reviewed on either an ongoing basis or a periodic basis. This one is certainly one of them and its time is coming. We're not there yet, but we're getting there."

Morgan said the province has asked a prosecutor to consult with Dickson on cases to see what needs to be done.

The justice minister also said the province is working with groups such as the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan to raise awareness.

"That doesn't say there won't be any more breaches, but we're working on it."

Dickson is concluding an investigation into what he said might be one of the largest breaches of health information in Saskatchewan's history.

In March, Dickson and two assistants had to wade through a massive recycling dumpster behind a Regina mall to recover medical files. Dickson estimated at the time that they found more than 1,000 files that should have been shredded. He plans to release his report on that breach later this month.

While Dickson wants to see better protection of private information, he also wants governments to be more open.

Saskatchewan's approach to access to information is outdated and at odds with modern expectations, he said. It seems "anachronistic" to make people print access forms, send them by snail mail and wait 30 days or more for a response when an electronic form could be sent, received and answered more quickly, he suggested.

"The traditional model of reactive access to information just isn't good enough any more and ... it certainly won't be good enough going forward."

Dickson said there are more proactive approaches in places in Mexico and the United Kingdom, where material is free and quickly accessible.

"You know our government has all kinds of studies on the environment, on environmental factors, on population movement, on population location, on density. All kinds of things that could easily be made available," he said.

"What we're taking about is moving to a push system instead of a reactive pull system."

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