Inadvertent disclosure of sensitive medical information by ATIP

Personal health information - information about the state of our bodies and minds - is arguably the most private information of all. When that information is not treated with the utmost care and confidentiality, the consequences can be disastrous. A case in point: an individual submitted an Access to Information Act (ATIA) request to a Government institution for all documents concerning the appointment of another Government employee to a specific position. The names of the two individuals were only vaguely similar. Yet because the departmental Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) office's analyst had not taken care to properly read the individuals' names when processing the ATIA request, an assumption was made that the requester and the appointee were one and the same individual. Thus, virtually all the information in the staffing file was disclosed to the ATIA requester - a small amount of third party information was removed. The file contained information about the appointee that was extremely private in nature - extensive medical and financial information, information about his family, his own employment and education history, and his home address and telephone number. It was also discovered that there was an uncomfortable history between the two individuals and that the requester had subsequently used some of the appointee's medical information to conduct his own personal inquiries about the appointee.

Following an investigation the institution readily admitted the error, apologized to the individual for what had occurred and gave him a copy of the same package the requester received so that he could see exactly what information about him had been improperly disclosed. The institution also asked the requester to return the information and to not keep any copies of it. While he returned the information, there were no assurances that copies had not been kept. Even had assurances been given, the damage had already been done and the appointee's personal information had already been further disclosed by the requester.

The former Commissioner accepted the fact that the situation occurred as a result of careless human error, but was appalled that the mistake was made at all Ð especially by the very people within the institution who are supposed to be the resident experts on the protection of personal information. Had the appointee's personal information been reviewed with the care it deserved this grievous violation of his privacy rights would never have occurred.

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