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Canada’s Veterans & Privacy Violations

It’s a contentious issue, but one that needs to be exposed. Privacy violations are just about everywhere you look. Some argue that it’s being over-reported, and as a result, we’re becoming desensitized to this important issue. Others say that media coverage of privacy breaches simply make the violation worse.

Background

According to Canada’s veterans’ ombudsman, Guy Parent, nine privacy violation complaints have been filed over the past five years. Seven of these have been escalated to Canada’s privacy commissioner, something that has been questioned by many veterans. There have been many examples of suspicious decisions at Veterans Affairs over the years.

For instance, former warrant officer Harold Leduc – recently dropped from a federal agency that reviews benefits claims of ex-soldiers – believes that his complaint about alleged privacy violations deserved to be investigated by both the ombudsman and privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

A spokesperson for Parent claims that each complaint was dealt with appropriately, denying that the ombudsman had been usurped:

“As an independent body, the Office of the Veterans’ Ombudsman does not back down from investigations on request. The decision to halt the review of this specific potential privacy breach was made when it was confirmed that the relevant mandated federal authority, in this case the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, had been seized with the matter. Parallel investigations by our office and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner would not have been a sensible use of resources.”

Later on, it was exposed that Veteran Affairs Minister Steven Blaney had quietly ended one of the privacy probes by the ombudsman, which was ordered by his predecessor, Jean-Pierre Blackburn. Not unlike Parent, Blaney reportedly believed that the investigation was best handled by Stoddart. And just a few weeks ago, Stoddart, in a comprehensive audit, gave the department the go-ahead and said its procedures for handling information have been tightened.

Privacy Violations at the Federal Level

“Privacy Violation” can sometimes be a broad and misused term. It suggests the act of looking, or snooping in files that one is not authorized to see. So, this can be used to refer to an employee with too much time on his hands, looking for friends and relatives’ information on the agency’s systems. It can also apply to someone sifting through sensitive information for malicious purposes. In both cases, the crime is the same – it is the illegal access of information.

Veterans rights advocates argue that the number of privacy violations against Canada’s veterans indicates something seriously wrong. Citizen advocate Jeff Rose-Martland writes,

“Look at the victims. These are people who swore to defend Canada. We trusted them with our country and our lives. They were trained to dedication and determination. They were awarded medals for their service to us – they have honors. And honor. And irreproachable reputations to carry them past these attacks. We don’t know what happened at Veteran’s Affairs. We also don’t know if this is just Veterans Affairs. If a government department was willing to attack decorated veterans for expressing their opinion, then what chance would you or I have?”

Observers have commented that it is the Harper administration that should be held responsible for the poor treatment of veterans. Gerald Caplan of The Globe and Mail wrote,

“When it comes to our vets, Harper government rhetoric and policies are in a virtual war, with pro-vet policies being the big loser. Who would have foreseen that this government, of all governments, would see veterans repeatedly demonstrating publicly to protest their treatment?”

Summary

This article looks at a series of privacy complaints against Veterans Affairs Canada, the majority of which have been escalated to the federal government privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart.

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Canada (CIPP/C) exam, a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner (I.A.c.i.1.a.)
  • Privacy incidents – trends in commissioner expectation (II.B.g.i.)
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