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Unauthorized disclosure of a SIN

We investigated an individual's complaint that Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) improperly disclosed his social insurance number (SIN) to a private investigator.

The complainant had filed a lawsuit against an insurance company that he believed had mishandled his insurance claim. During the court process he discovered that the insurance company had hired a private investigator to delve into his financial affairs. He obtained a copy of the investigator's report, and noted references to inquiries conducted at HRDC, and the information obtained as a result of those inquiries. Dissatisfied because of HRDC's apparent lack of willingness to address his concerns about this breach of his privacy, the individual eventually turned to this Office for assistance.

We established during the investigation that an employee of HRDC had queried the complainant's file in the Social Insurance Register (SIR) system during the same time period that the private investigator had conducted his inquiries. Although the complainant reported his concerns to HRDC, it did not pursue the matter further until he indicated that he intended to subpoena HRDC employees to testify in court in his suit against the insurance company. At that time he asked for a copy of HRDC's investigation file concerning the disclosure of his SIN and any information related to the action taken by HRDC in that regard. It was only at this point - almost ten months after he first reported his concerns Ð that HRDC decided to conduct an internal inquiry to determine whether, or how, his SIN may have been compromised.

It was clear from the evidence obtained during our investigation that the HRDC employee had obtained access to the individual's SIN without justification and disclosed it to the private investigator. The evidence also pointed to the possibility that the employee had also gained access to approximately 40 other client files on the SIR system for which there were no related HRDC case files that would require the employee to query their SIN files.

The former Commissioner was concerned with HRDC's lack of conviction in handling the individual's complaint about the disclosure of his SIN when he first brought it to their attention. They failed to take any action other than to issue him a new SIN, despite the fact that several officials were aware of the incident long before he complained to this Office. The former Commissioner was equally concerned that despite the seemingly adequate systems capabilities, HRDC managers do not routinely monitor the SIR system to identify and deal with any activities of a suspicious nature or that cannot otherwise be justified as part of an employee's duties.

The former Commissioner concluded that HRDC was responsible for its employee's improper disclosure of the individual's SIN to the private investigator, and that it had as a result contravened the confidentiality provisions of the Privacy Act.

In response to this finding, HRDC undertook to mitigate the damage to the extent possible. The Deputy Minister sent a letter of apology to the complainant, and implemented measures that will significantly enhance the security of personal information in the SIR database, and enhance monitoring of employees' access to the SIR. We are confident that this will improve HRDC's abilities to protect the personal information under its control and prevent any further violations of client privacy.

HRDC also decided to refer the matter to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for criminal investigation - the employee was eventually fired by HRDC for the breach of security.

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