Commissioner Releases Report into Missing Computer Tape Containing Health Information

July 5, 2005

Commissioner Frank Work initiated an investigation on his own motion under the Health Information Act (HIA) into the loss of a missing data tape containing information related to the administration of the Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan (AHCIP), specifically group premium statement information.

The investigation found that:

  • The computer tape contains the “health information” of 672,316 Albertans, including name, personal health number and department/employee number (where applicable), monthly health care premium rate and changes to the rate, family status, and number of dependents.  There is no diagnostic, treatment and care information or health services provider information on the data tape.
  • The risk to Albertans resulting from the loss of the data tape is low.  There is no evidence that the information on the missing tape has been exposed or used for fraudulent purposes, but this remains a possibility until the data tape is located and returned to Alberta Health and Wellness (AHW).  Therefore, AHW should notify all affected Albertans.
  • The HIA requires a custodian to take reasonable steps to maintain safeguards to protect against a reasonably anticipated risk.  AHW did have reasonable administrative, technical and physical safeguards in place.  The standard is not perfection and it is not expected that a custodian be able to foresee every incident that could occur.  In these circumstances, AHW met the requirements of the HIA.
  • The investigation found four areas where improvements could be made to increase the level of protection for “health information”:
    1. Individual data tapes should be tracked as they move from IBM to the microfiche vendor and back to IBM.
    2. An increased level of security should be applied to planned and regular shipments of “health information”.
    3. IBM should notify AHW within 48 hours of an ‘unauthorized disclosure’.
    4. A written agreement should be in place between CriticalControl Solutions Inc. (company that holds government-wide imaging services agreement) and the microfiche vendor setting out accountabilities and privacy and security requirements.
  • AHW has stopped creating microfiche of the AHCIP group premium statement information, and therefore the data tapes used in this process are no longer being shipped.  This operational change eliminates the risk of losing a tape and resolves the contractual issue.

The investigation makes the following recommendations:

  • That AHW provide substitute notice to Albertans through the media (advertising) within seven working days of this news release and post the notice in a prominent and highly visible location on the AHW website for a period of 30 days.
  • That AHW and IBM clarify the requirements regarding the timeliness for notification of privacy breaches, and update the contract accordingly.

AHW has accepted the recommendations.