Misdirected faxes, personal phone use 'urgent' issues in N.W.T., says gov't privacy watchdog

The Information and Privacy Commissioner says misdirected faxes and the use of personal devices are issues within government bodies.

Privacy commissioner calls for encryption of emails to avoid privacy breaches

Elaine Keenan Bengts, the N.W.T.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner, tabled her latest annual report at the legislative assembly Tuesday. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Misdirected faxes and the use of personal devices like iPads and cell phones among government workers are some "urgent" issues with privacy and access to information in the Northwest Territories, according to the territory's information and privacy watchdog.

"I continue to receive a significant number of breach notifications and misdirected faxes," writes Elaine Keenan Bengts, the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC), in her most recent annual report reviewing breaches to privacy and information access.

These faxes often contain sensitive and personal information.

"Faxes that are supposed to go to recipient A and end up in the hands of somebody unknown because somebody putting the wrong phone number or pushed the wrong button," said Keenan Bengts. 

"I mean, we're all human," she said, but added that it's probably time to stop using fax machines — "an old technology."

In an ideal world for Keenan Bengts, all information, especially in emails, should be encrypted when sent.

"You can encrypt an e-mail so that even if it goes wrong ... there's no harm, no foul."

She said the territorial government needs to be ready to switch to encryption, adding that it could lessen the amount of breach notifications her office receives.

Between 2016 and 2017, Keenan Bengts' office has seen an increase of 40 per cent of files received under two Acts: the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Health Information Act, for a total of 69 complaints.

Taking notes on personal devices

For Keenan Bengts, the six emerging issues she outlines in her report are "all urgent," and should be addressed.

Regarding uneven records management, she believes the government is moving toward a better system.

But even if records are being kept appropriately, there's a new problem — Keenan Bengts said she's seeing more and more civil servants using their personal devices to take notes on business matters, escaping the record management system.

This problem often arises when government employees file a workplace complaint to her office, she said. 

"They want information about what was said about them or they have applied for a job and they didn't get it and they want to know why."

Often, she said, the employee saw a manager taking notes, but the notes seem to be nonexistent when asked for.

"That's a privacy problem if [managers] discuss information of an individual. But it's also a problem for good record keeping and it's really, really hard to control in today's modern world," said Keenan Bengts.

Keenan Bengts said senior managers also need "not only to be trained but ... they need to be champions for access and privacy."

"Politics being what it is, sometimes access is uncomfortable," she said.

Managers 'inappropriately disclosed' employee info

Managers from the N.W.T.'s Department of Lands and the Department of Education, Culture and Employment have also been reprimanded after they disclosed employees' personal health conditions to coworkers.

In one instance, a manager at the Department of Education, Culture and Employment called a full staff meeting, and asked an employee to reveal and explain the nature of his illness to the entire group, according to the annual report.

It was a "serious breach" of privacy, and Keenan Bengts said an employee's personal health information is never a matter of a "health and safety issue that requires the sharing of information."

Keenan Bengts is asking for more funding for her office, saying her resources are "being stretched beyond capacity.

"I think the work that my office does is important for democracy and unless I can keep up … It's not gonna get better."