Free credit checks sought after 'unprecedented' data loss

The federal government is suggesting a number of free options to people worried about the costs for credit checks after the personal data of 583,000 Canadians was lost.

Class-action lawsuit launched by N.L. lawyer on behalf of 583,000 Canadians

Jennifer Britton, an Ottawa-area mother of three, is one of more than half a million student loan recipients whose personal data was lost by the federal government. (Stu Mills/CBC)

The federal government is suggesting a number of free options to people worried about the cost of credit checks after the personal data of 583,000 Canadians was lost.

The information was lost in early November when a portable hard drive vanished, affecting people who received Canada Student Loans between 2000 and 2006.

A spokeswoman for Human Resources and Skills Development Canada said people can ask the government to request a free credit report from a credit bureau be mailed to them, and can also ask that their social insurance number be flagged in the event unusual activity is noted. Neither of these options will provide real-time credit updates, however.

The response comes after an Ottawa-area woman said federal government officials told her she would have to pay $14 a month to a credit bureau to monitor her credit information.

Britton plans to join a class-action lawsuit after St. John's lawyer Bob Buckingham filed a statement of claim Thursday on behalf of all the affected Canadians.

HRSDC timeline of events
  • Nov. 5, 2012: Employee discovers an external hard drive is missing.
  • Nov. 28: Departmental security officer is notified.
  • Dec. 6: Officials learn the personal information of more than 583,000 Canada Student Loans program clients are on the missing hard drive.
  • Dec. 14: The Office of the Privacy Commissioner is notified.
  • Jan. 7, 2013: The incident is referred to the RCMP.
  • Jan. 11: The public is informed of the incident and all portable hard drives and unencrypted USB keys are banned at HRSDC.

Britton agreed the government should cover any costs associated with protecting people who could be affected because it was responsible for the lost information.

"I absolutely don't think that it should be on me and other former students to pay this when it's the government's mistake," she said.

Departments could see privacy audits

Canada's assistant privacy commissioner, Chantal Bernier, said the loss of so much personal data is "unprecedented," adding that her office is investigating the incident.

"This is one of the biggest breaches we've ever seen," Bernier told CBC News.

She also said privacy breaches are the danger that accompanies a digital maintenance of data, but privacy commissioner's office is considering audits of some particular departments, such as HRSDC.

'This is one of the biggest breaches we've ever seen.'—Chantal Bernier, assistant privacy commissioner

"We should do an audit of selected departments based on the ones that hold the most sensitive information to make sure that everyone is indeed complying with the safeguards that need to be put in place to protect it."

Lawyer files class-action claim

Buckingham has reached out to clients across Canada about filing the lawsuit in response to the lost information.

Class-action lawsuitStatement of claim filed on behalf of 583,000 Canadians

His website, which outlined the pending lawsuit he intends to file, received 75,000 hits as of Wednesday and more than 4,000 people have contacted him. To proceed, however, a class action has to first be certified by a judge.

"We're saying hold tight while we file the class action and see if we can get the government ... to assist people in protecting their identities, in the short term and the long term," said Buckingham. "The government has to acknowledge that this is a circumstance that could exist and put something in place to protect these individuals."

Buckingham said a lawsuit would push the government to cover such credit protection safeguards and compensate for the stress and fear on those involved.

The ministry said the personal data only belongs to the students, not any spouses, parents or guarantors. It is also monitoring the affected SIN cards for any fraudulent activity.

The ministry has also banned all portable hard drives and unencrypted USB keys, as of Jan. 11.