Veterans Affairs Canada betrayed the trust of all Canadians when it mishandled the private medical information of one of its clients and violated his rights. The department has since closed its investigation into the scandal, but the results are far from satisfactory.
Sean Bruyea, a former air force intelligence officer, was receiving help from Veterans Affairs for stress when he became a thorn in the department's side as a leading critic of its policies and plans. That resistance led to a systemic breach of his privacy as literally hundreds of department workers viewed sensitive material about his mental health, including one incident in which his entire file was sent to a hospital without his permission.
An investigation by the privacy commissioner of Canada, Jennifer Stoddart, called the case alarming, which is probably an understatement given the extensive abuse of power exercised by the state against a single citizen.
Veterans Affairs has since offered lame and inadequate explanations for the abuse. The department's investigation determined 614 employees accessed his files on the government computer network. All of them had some legitimate reason for doing so, the department said, except for 54 employees, who received written reprimands or three-day suspensions.
Some documents were also stamped with the Privacy Act's logo and warnings the information was confidential, but for reasons that are still not clear no one in authority noticed the gross violations.
The current minister, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, said there was no intent to harm Mr. Bruyea, and the department had simply not emphasized privacy protection as an important issue, a remarkable admission in today's environment.
At a minimum, the case reveals an astonishing degree of sloppiness and ignorance, particularly with regard to senior officials who should have known better. In fact, it stretches believability that senior staff had no idea anything was amiss as they prepared ministerial briefing notes on Mr. Bruyea using his medical files. Departmental employees are now being trained in the rules of privacy law, but it's probably something that should be repeated in all branches of government.
Fortunately, the case was so serious that the privacy commissioner has decided to conduct a more thorough investigation of the department's handling of veterans' personal information.
The case serves as a cautionary tale of the need for rigorous checks and balances to curb the enormous power of the state to abuse the people it is supposed to serve.