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The Canadian Government Accidentally Released Identities of Ebola Patients

A bureaucratic bumble exposed sensitive information.
May 18, 2016, 2:06pm
The offending documents. Image: Raphael Satter

Canada is well-known for a few things—good weed, resplendent nature, and a hot prime minister. But a botched attempt at redacting sensitive information with scotch tape and paper shows that our government's arts and crafts skills aren't always on point.

Reporters can usually expect a litany of redactions done with black marker when the government hands over sensitive information. But when Raphael Satter, a Europe-based correspondent for the Associated Press, got his hands on a stack of documents from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), obtained with an access to information request, he was shocked by the agency's kindergarten craft time approach.

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Redactions were made with easily-removed loose paper and scotch tape, instead of the usual method.

In doing so, the agency inadvertently revealed the identities of three people who had contracted the Ebola virus, Satter told Motherboard over email. Although it's not exactly clear from the documents where the infections took place, Satter wrote, it's "almost certain" they occurred at a hospital in Sierra Leone, one West African country where the Ebola epidemic was raging in 2014.

"It's arguable that greater care should have been taken with that information"

"That's the worrying part of what's otherwise a pretty funny story," Satter wrote in an email. "It's arguable that greater care should have been taken with that information and I've raised the issue with PHAC and with the Office of the Information Commissioner."

In an emailed statement sent to Motherboard, PHAC spokesperson Sylwia Krzyszton wrote that the agency has independently notified the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) and is investigating the lapse in privacy standards. Motherboard has reached out to the OPC for comment and to confirm this notification was received, and will update the story when we hear from them.

"The protection of personal information is of fundamental importance and we deeply regret that this error occurred," Krzyszton wrote. "We are looking into the matter to determine what happened."

The access to information request was filed by Satter's colleague and AP reporter Maria Cheng in 2015 as part of an investigation into the global response to the Ebola outbreak that occurred in West Africa. The PHAC had mobile labs in the region, and the reporters were seeking insight into how the Canadians interacted with other responders.

"Having peeked at what's under the 'redactions' I'm mystified as to why PHAC wanted this information kept secret," Satter wrote. "They redacted colleagues introducing each other by email. They redacted a discussion about cotton swabs. They even redacted an email signature."

Next time, one can only hope, the government will simply do a better job of redacting information that actually matters, like people's sensitive medical history.