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Privacy Breach Affects Social Assistance Recipients in Ontario

On Monday, March 2, 2015, the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services revealed that it mistakenly released privacy information belonging to hundreds of social assistance recipients in the province. Unfortunately, the social insurance numbers (SIN) of over 700 welfare and disability support program recipients were disclosed to third parties, along with the amount of assistance received from the government last year.

Pinning the Blame

At least 720 individuals’ T5 tax forms – used to report social assistance income – were sent to their former trustees in on February 16. The problem affected 0.1 percent of people currently receiving social assistance T5s. The Ministry reportedly informed the Information and Privacy Commissioner and has also sent letters to those affected by the T5 problem as well as the former trustees, requesting that they return the T5s they may have received mistakenly.

The error occurred when the T5 system accessed outdated data from the $240-million IBM-developed Social Assistance Management System (SAMS). The SAMS has been plagued with numerous problems since its rollout late last year. However, the Ministry said this error was not caused by SAMS itself.

According to the official statement from the Ministry:

“Today, the ministry informed 720 clients (0.1 percent of clients receiving their T5s) of an error with the T5 interface that pulled data from SAMS, which resulted in their T5 form being sent to their former trustee instead of them.”

In late February, the province became aware of the problems and letters of apology were sent to those affected by Jeff Bowen, director in the ministry’s social assistance and municipal operations branch. Those affected will be receiving replacement T5 forms.

Necessary Improvements

Helene Jaczek, minister for Community and Social Services, repeated her earlier position that the implementation of the SAMS requires improvement:

“… That is why I have asked the ministry to select an independent third-party advisor on SAMS implementation to provide further advice and assistance, evaluate our progress and recommend actions to help us reach our goals.”

Opposition critics countered that position, saying that this latest mix up is yet another strike against the SAMS. “The SAMS nightmare keeps getting worse for families on social assistance,” commented NDP MPP Cindy Forster, the party’s critic for community and social services.

An internal memo from the Ministry of Community and Social Services to its staff revealed nearly a dozen critical flaws due to SAMS, disrupting Ontario Works and ODSP cases province-wide. According to the memo, it will take 10 more weeks to address these problems.

Problems directly attributable to SAMS forced the province to launch an independent review of the $242 million system. It was announced on March 2 that the province has engaged Pricewaterhouse Coopers to perform the review.

Also, thanks to SAMS malfunctions, the province is also delaying the rollout of a special benefit to help social-assistance recipients make their transition to employment.

Technical problems with SAMS caused substantial problems last year, when numerous welfare recipients received no money or as little as $5, while 17,000 others were initially assigned $20 million in welfare and disability support overpayments in December. According to the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents caseworkers, and the opposition parties say others who depend on social assistance received far below the norm, or worse, did not receive payment at all.

Summary

This article discusses the latest in Ontario’s malfunctioning Social Assistance Management System (SAMS), this time erroneously sending the tax documents of over 700 individuals to the wrong addresses.

CIPP Exam Preparation                                      

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

  • Enforcement agencies – provincial privacy commissioners (I.A.c.i.1.b.)
  • Types of personal information (I.B.a.)
  • Accountability (II.B.a.)
  • Privacy incidents (II.B.g.)
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