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Privacy commissioner investigating after health records found at Fort Simpson dump

Elaine Keenan Bengts
Photo courtesy of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of the Northwest Territories. IPC Elaine Keenan Bengts.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner of the Northwest Territories is investigating after a Fort Simpson man found a stack of medical records at the dump last week.

Randal Sibbeston told CBC North last week that he found a bankers box full of records at the Fort Simpson dump, which contained sensitive information about patients' substance use and mental health.

After the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority (NTHSSA) was made aware of the privacy breach, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) of the Northwest Territories was notified, a news release from the territorial health authority stated on Saturday.

Elaine Keenan Bengts, information and privacy commissioner, wrote to Sibbeston asking him to turn over the files to the RCMP.

Photo courtesy of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of the Northwest Territories.
IPC Elaine Keenan Bengts.

“Under the Health Information Act, I have the authority to collect documents when I have an investigation ongoing,” she said. “So I commenced an investigation and asked if (Sibbeston) would turn them over to the RCMP as my agent.”

RCMP transported the 118 files to Yellowknife and Keenan Bengts now has them in her possession.

“I got them over the weekend and we are currently trying to figure out where they came from, how they got to where they were, all of those good things,” she said.

At this point, that information isn’t clear from the records themselves, as many of them are decades old. Keenan Bengts hasn’t been able to determine if the 118 files represent one individual’s health information or numerous individuals, but said it’s likely the files are for separate individuals. The next steps will be figuring out a way to give notice to those affected.

“My immediate role was to get possession of the records, I have those now,” said Keenan Bengts.

“The next thing we need to do, through the records – and I will be working with the department of health on this – is figure out what happened to them. Where they came from, why they were in Fort Simpson to begin with and how they made their way from wherever they have been in storage for the last almost 20 years, because most of them are quite dated records and into the dump in Fort Simpson at this point in time,” she said

At this point, it’s not clear whether the department of health or the territorial government is responsible.

“We don’t know and we won’t know for some time. There’s a lot of digging to do on this one,” said Keenan Bengts. Once the commissioner has all that information, she will make recommendations to prevent this kind of breach in the future.

The government will probably have an update within the next few weeks, but the IPC’s investigation will take at least six months.

Keenan Bengts is still investigating after the last breach in June, when a laptop containing the health information of up to 80 per cent of the territory’s residents was stolen from a vehicle in Ottawa.

“Breaches happen all the time, we’re all human,” said Keenan Bengts. “And these particular records were clearly created before the Health Information Act came into effect. I think that the department of health is making a concerted effort. And I can tell you for sure that they are very concerned about all of these breaches that have arisen from the government of the Northwest Territories.”

Despite their frequency, breaches like this one are not unique to the Northwest Territories.

“There are abandoned medical records all over the country and my counterparts across the country are dealing with similar instances,” said Keenan Bengts.

“So this will play out as it plays out. But hopefully, the result will be that we have an improved system in the end.”