Private information stolen from civil servant's home

November 16, 2007

CBC News

Canada's privacy commissioner is investigating after thieves stole a federal government laptop from a public servant's home in Gatineau, Que., putting more than 1,600 people, mainly Atlantic Canadians, at risk of identity fraud.

The computer was stolen at Thanksgiving from the home of a Service Canada employee just across the river from Ottawa, Colin McKay, spokesman for the commissioner's office, confirmed on Friday.

The majority of the people - 1,100 - receive old age pensions. The others affected are their spouses and some government employees.

The stolen computer contains personal information, such as social insurance numbers, bank account numbers, birthdates and credit details.

The information was protected by two passwords, but not encrypted.

Service Canada, which alerted the commissioner to the theft, said police have arrested and charged a suspect, but the laptop is still missing.

Rose MacDonald of O'Leary, P.E.I., was shocked to receive a letter from Service Canada earlier this week telling her that her information was on a laptop that was stolen from one of its employees.

She immediately called the toll-free number provided.

"I asked if the building had been broken into, and he said no, an employee brought the computer home," MacDonald said.

"I said, 'You mean to tell me a Government of Canada employee brought a computer out of a Government of Canada building?' And he said, 'Well, she wasn't supposed to.' "

An internal investigation is taking place.

McKay said this kind of theft is increasing as more and more people work from home on computers that require a high level of security. He isn't against employees taking work home with them, he added.

"The question is, are they maintaining the same safeguards when they take it home? We want continuity of security at the office, in the car and at home," McKay said.

"If you had 1,000 drivers licenses, would you leave them in the back of your car or in your trunk? You wouldn't. But people won't stop to think about that when they leave a laptop in their car or in a store and then it's stolen."

In this case, the employee's home was broken into and the computer was taken.

Identity theft risk low

Service Canada told MacDonald the risk of having her identity stolen was low.

"I feel very threatened that my personal information could leave that building," MacDonald said. "They say the risk is low, but to me, any risk at all is too much."

MacDonald said she has notified the two Canadian credit bureaus, plus her bank and credit card companies to watch for any irregular activity on her accounts.

"Even if the computer is recovered, it doesn't mean the information isn't out there somewhere. So I guess I can never relax about this," she said.

The Privacy Commission is taking the issue very seriously, McKay said.

He said the commission is getting full co-operation from Service Canada in its investigation. The commission wants more encryption on employee laptops so personal information can't be accessed.

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