Veteran wants public inquiry into privacy breach
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Thursday, October 7, 2010 6:48PM EDT
A war veteran who was the victim of a privacy breach at the hands of bureaucrats with Canada's Veterans Affairs Department is calling for an apology and a full public inquiry.
Privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart on Thursday released the results of an investigation which found that the department broke the law in its handling of the personal information of retired intelligence officer Sean Bruyea -- who's well known as an outspoken advocate for veterans.
The year-long investigation stemmed from a complaint by Bruyea, whose medical and financial information was contained in briefing notes prepared for then-veterans affairs minister Greg Thompson in 2006.
"What we found in this case was alarming," Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said in a news release Thursday.
"The veteran's sensitive medical and personal information was shared -- seemingly with no controls -- among departmental officials who had no legitimate need to see it. This personal information subsequently made its way into a ministerial briefing note about the veteran's advocacy activities. This was entirely inappropriate."
This is a serious violation of the federal Privacy Act, which says an individual's information must only be shared in government on a need-to-know basis.
Stoddart also confirmed that she has fielded complaints from other veterans. She said her office will audit the Veterans Affairs department's use of private information, examining both its policies and practices.
Bruyea, a Gulf War veteran who has suffered the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, said the commissioner's finding was a personal vindication and a vindication on behalf of the veteran community. He called the privacy violations "morally disgusting to all Canadians." He wants the federal government to apologize to all veterans, saying the breach left him and his wife in a "humiliating state of powerlessness and vulnerability."
Bruyea's medical information, including diagnosis, symptoms and prognosis, were also found in a 2005 briefing note under the former Liberal government. Stoddart's investigation also revealed that Veterans Affairs sent volumes of Bruyea's medical information to a veterans' hospital without his consent.
The privacy commissioner said she was concerned that officials from several branches of Veterans Affairs, including policy and communications, were involved in discussing and contributing to the briefing notes.
The March 2006 note under the Conservative government was to brief the minister on Bruyea's participation in a press conference in which he was critical of the department.
Besides his advocacy work, the note contained his medical information and some financial information.
Bruyea filed a court action against the federal government last month, asking for $10,000 in compensation.
He accused bureaucrats of wanting to use the psychiatric reports in his medical file to "falsely portray me and my advocacy to help other veterans as merely a manifestation of an unstable mind."
He said as a result, his credibility with senior Veterans Affairs officials and politicians was ruined.
"I needed to apply to the Government of Canada for help. And I depended on the Government of Canada for my financial security and medical care," Bruyea told CTV's Power Play.
"So that's why when I discovered what the government was doing with distortions of my medical file, distributing them wide across departments including media relations, I was terrified. I had lost control of the most personal, intimate aspects of my life."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised strong action in response to the "completely unacceptable" breach, and Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn said the department would adopt the four recommendations made by the privacy commissioner.
"The government has absolutely no tolerance for the behaviour that went on here," Harper told reporters following a press conference at an aerospace plant in Winnipeg.
"The fact that some of the bureaucracy had been abusing these files and not following appropriate process is completely unacceptable. And we will ensure that rules are followed, that the recommendations of the privacy commissioner are implemented -- that if this behaviour continues there will be strong action against it.
Blackburn said his department had already taken action by hiring a privacy expert to help implement those recommendations.
The department's rules around the use of private information and the penalties for breaking confidentiality rules are being reviewed, he said.
With files from The Canadian Press