Saturday, March 18, 2006

Government's computer privacy problems a warning for you

VICTORIA - Consider the B.C. government's recent problems in protecting private information and keeping its computer networks secure a wake-up call.
It's easy to let things like privacy protection slide. What's the harm if government, or business, has some information about you stashed in files? You've got nothing to hide.
And not long ago that might have even been an OK attitude. The technology of the day made it hard to gather information, and even harder to pull it all together. The sheer challenge of the task helped protect your privacy.
Not any more. Computer advances means it's technically easy to compile vast and detailed files on anyone. Where you shop, what you buy, medical treatment, personal problems, books you read, what you earn, how quickly you pay your bills.
The potential loss of privacy, and damage, has become much greater than ever before.
And the protection has not kept pace with the increased risk.
The government demonstrated that this month as it admitted to two information management failures with privacy implications.
First the Vancouver Sun was contacted by a man who gone to a provincial government surplus sale and spent a few dollars each for a big box of computer tapes.
He checked them out, and there was information on 77,000 British Columbians. Names, social insurance numbers, medical histories, contacts with the government. Information about people who were HIV positive. People who had reported their child had been sexually assaulted, or sought help for their own personal problems, all their information available.
The purchaser turned them over to the newspaper, which in turn secured them and passed them on to government.
But what if it had been someone else? Identity theft - gathering enough basic information to get credit cards and bank accounts in other peoples' names - would be simple. Blackmail possible. Simply putting the information up on the Internet for all to see an option.
Days later the NDP revealed that hackers had broken into the government computer system, and seized control of 78 computers for two months before they were detected. They loaded porn movies on to the computers, apparently using the government's network as part of a pay-for-porn business.
Sorry, says Mike de Jong, the minister responsible. We won't sell surplus tapes and hard drives any more. And at least the hackers didn't go looking for private files, he said.
There's reason to be worried about this specific case. The auditor general warned last year that the government's computer security systems were flawed.
But there will always be a risk that human error or criminal attacks will compromise security. Hackers and security experts struggle to see who stays one step ahead. Sometimes the bad guys will win.
Just as there is always a drive by organizations to want to gather information, and then to use it. Stewart Brand is credited with the observation that 'information wants to be free.' Information also wants to be used.
Users often resist privacy requirements. There's pressure within the B.C. government for legislative amendments this session that would reduce privacy protection.
So what's your defence?
For starters, your own vigilance about surrendering personal information. Canadian and B.C. privacy laws require organizations to get your consent before gathering and sharing personal information.
But application is lax, and the public inattentive. Most of us signed up for loyalty cards of one kind or another, and checked the little box that says we accept the companies privacy policy. But we don't read that policy, which gives the company the right to share our personal information with other corporations, and store it in the U.S.
We also need to be able to count the independent watchdogs that are charged with protecting our interests, like B.C.'s auditor general and the information and privacy commissioner.
But both offices have been starved of needed funds by the Liberal government, despite rising challenges and workloads.
Privacy matters. And we are placing it at risk.
Footnote: The Liberal government cut the Information and Privacy Commissioner's budget by 35 per cent in their first term. Increases have still left it office with less money in real dollars today than it had in 2001, despite a 24-per-cent increase in complaints in 2005 alone.


Anonymous said...

But Wait... There's More

The BC doctors just received $100M to upgrade thir computer systems.

You can bet that all of these new computers will be linked together - to bring 'efficiency' - on a network that will one day be subject to massive crack attacks... most will fail, but all it takes is one to succeed for your info to be copied and sold.

The other privacy concern is that all doctor's offices will be able to dig into all other doctor's offices computers.

Anonymous said...

I like your post thanks for sharing.Keep it up.
OnlineKnowledge Academy