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B.C. software woes worse than predicted: privacy group

Jul 21 2012

A privacy watchdog group that has been sounding alarm bells for years about the B.C. government's new computer system says revelations of its serious failures are far worse than predicted.

Numerous privacy breaches in the new $182-million Integrated Case Management System, revealed Thursday, are "far beyond" the worst-case scenario predicted by the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said executive director Vincent Gogolek.

"There seems to be so much wrong with the system," Gogolek said. "We didn't see this coming at all."

Gogolek's organization has been warning for years about the dangers of government gathering sensitive personal information into a single cross-ministry computer system, where it could be abused by workers.

But B.C.'s child watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said Thursday she was overwhelmed with complaints of technical problems in the "deeply flawed" computer software that has led to "several instances" of privacy breaches.

That computer system went live April 1, linking information on thousands of social assistance and child welfare clients, including sensitive details on child abuse, foster care and welfare payments. The government had said privacy would be protected through strict control of information.

Turpel-Lafond highlighted one case of government workers having full and improper access to a doctor's family service file and personal information, after the doctor flagged a child's suspicious injuries for ministry investigation.

"There are issues where the types of provisions put in place for privacy are not effective," Turpel-Lafond said.

She also said she had heard that social workers were carrying around sensitive case information rather than entering it into the computer system, which also poses a privacy risk.

"This is a disaster," Gogolek said. "I don't think there's any other way to describe it."

B.C.'s privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, had been monitoring the development of the new computer system for several years. She said she was concerned about the privacy breach allegations and was planning an investigation.

Denham said it was appropriate for the government to put on hold the next phase of the computer project until the problems are understood.

Children's Minister Mary McNeil said she would spend $12 million on extra staff to help cover an increased workload caused by the computer system problem, as well as launch an independent technical review of complaints related to child welfare cases.

The independent review won't be related to the companies that built the computer system, and should be complete by the end of November, the Children's Ministry said in a statement Friday. The results of the external review will be public.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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