Canada Fumbles Health Data in Security Breach

The data loss includes HIV and hepatitis patient histories for an undetermined number of people.

Canadian health authorities have lost intimate medical data including HIV and hepatitis test results for an undetermined number of citizens in a recent security breach, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador admitted Nov. 26.

According to a media release, on the evening of Nov. 20, a consultant employed by the Provincial Public Health Laboratory was contacted at his home office by an unidentified security researcher. The researcher told the consultant that he was in possession of patient information stored on the consultants computer. That patient information includes names, MCP (Medical Care Plan) numbers, age, sex, physician and test results for infectious diseases, including HIV and hepatitis.

That information is normally stored on computers within the PHL. In this case, however, a computer was taken home inappropriately, Health Minister Ross Wiseman told news outlets.

"That was an inappropriate use. Obviously, individual computers that are available for work are there for the workplace only," he told CBC News.

The PHL acts as the provinces laboratory center for infectious disease surveillance and control, providing lab services to hospitals, clinics and health-related agencies.

The files were accessed through an open Internet connection. Until the forensic investigation has been concluded, theres no way to determine how many patients data may have been exposed, according to the release.

"This appears to be an isolated situation," Jerome Kennedy, minister of justice and attorney general, was quoted as saying in the release. "The information garnered from our investigation thus far supports this. Because the external computer was not part of the systems and networks of either the laboratory or Eastern Health, which provides IT support to PHL, this breach in no way reflects on the integrity of these systems. We can say unequivocally that all other patient information stored by our government and the regional health authorities was in no way jeopardized by this one situation with one computer external to our networks."

Thats likely to be cold comfort for the citizenry of the United Kingdom, which is still reeling from the unprecedented loss of personal information on 25 million child benefit recipients in England that came to light on Nov. 20, the same day as the Canada loss.

In that case, data was stored on two computer disks that were lost while being transported via internal mail from the National Audit Office department to HM Revenue and Customs. A junior employee at the National Audit Office is believed to have sent the disks through the mail, but the disks never showed up at HMRC.

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Its no mistake if the two data breaches sound similar. Both involve the single biggest common denominator in data breaches: namely, human beings. The Ponemon Institute, which has been producing annual reports on data breaches for three years, told eWEEK that human errors are involved in 80 percent of all reported security breaches, with loss or theft of portable data devices such as PDAs or laptops being the top cause of all breaches.

Besides devices falling out of pockets, being left in cabs or getting lost in the mail, the second biggest cause of security breaches is the human tendency to ignore policy or at least be ignorant regarding security policy.

"It may not be deliberate, malicious disregard … sometimes its … a little more insidious," Larry Ponemon told eWEEK. "People are told, get this done, and theyll work from their home computer," he said—even when thats clearly against policy, such as in the case with the PHL.

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