Monday, January 14, 2013

Note to HRSDC: Cloud computing and remote access dramatically reduces the risk of portable device data breaches

The Canadian news has been full of reports related to two significant privacy breaches emanating from the federal ministry of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. The first to be reported was the loss of a USB thumb drive containing the personal information (including personal health information) of more than 5,000 disabled Canadians who were receiving benefits under programs administered by HRSDC. In the course of investigating that first breach, a second came to light. Apparently someone at HRSDC thought it would be wise to backup the data of over half a million student loan recipients onto a portable USB hard-drive, which could be easily lost or misplaced. Guess what happened ... it was lost or misplaced.

Problems with storing sensitive personal information on USB storage devices are not unknown. The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Ann Cavoukian, has recently been on a tear over a USB-related breach by Elections Ontario resulting from poorly understood policies, bad training and a lack of accountability. In fact, she's published reams of reports on the breach, its root causes and what should be done to prevent it from happening again. (The TL;DR version: Employees were engaged in a project where they had to clean up electoral lists at an off-site location. They decided to transfer the data using USB thumb drives and didn't even do that well.)

The HRSDC Minister's media release says that, as a response to the second breach, employees will be given training on a new information security policy. That suggests to me that the reckless practice of placing unencrypted personal information on portable storage devices was A-OK. Well, it's not. Never has been and never will be.

The full facts of the HRSDC breaches are still very sparse, but we know that the second breach was caused by an employee or employees who wanted to make a backup of data (probably a good idea) and put the backup on a small portable device (a very bad idea). It may be that the first breach was caused by an employee who either needed to work offsite with the data or needed to move it from one computer to another. Both are reasonable things to want to do. And in some computing environments, can only be accomplished by making a copy of the data and USB devices are a handy way of accomplishing that.

A large part of my practice is advising clients on cloud computing. And I also often get invited to speak to groups of IT professionals and fellow lawyers on legal issues related to cloud computing. For the past few years, the majority of questions about the risk of cloud computing have focused on the fact that the data may be outside of Canada and that the customer is trusting someone else to secure the data. Those are both important questions to ponder, but few turn their minds to the fact that, in most cases, cloud computing is much safer for the data and significantly lowers the risk to data.

If Elections Ontario or HRSDC were using a cloud computing model, none of these breaches would have happened in any of the scenarios outlined above. Cloud computing keeps the data on a server or series of servers in highly secured data centres. There's no need to copy or move the data to get access to it remotely. This is accomplished through secured connections between an authorized computer or browser and the data centre. If you want it backed up, that's usually done on tapes in the data center and the data seldom has to leave the secured premises. In any data centre worth its salt, disk inventory is carefully controlled and audit tools are used to keep track of who has accessed what data. If tapes are moved offsite for redundancy's sake, there is usually a much higher level of diligence exercised as it follows documented processes.

When questions are being asked about how this happened and what can be done to prevent such breaches from happening again, the government should carefully consider how cloud computing or other remote access models dramatically reduce the risk of such breaches.


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