Ontario's children's aid societies grappling with how to monitor privacy breaches

July 17, 2017
Article Source
Toronto Star

Child welfare workers who pry into electronic records of youth in care are difficult to track, critics warn, with an alert system for possible privacy breaches used only on select files.

Even though there are strict rules for accessing records, inappropriate searches can happen without anyone knowing about it, said Irwin Elman, the provincial advocate for children and youth, in an email.

As children's aid societies move toward a new centralized database, access to most records from across the province — and not just from within an agency — will soon become searchable to workers.

While the Child Protection Information Network (CPIN) database streamlines information collecting and sharing, it can also bring the "possibility for seemingly unfettered access" to sensitive files of youth in care, said Yuan Stevens, a former Ontario Crown ward and researcher at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

Youth should be told in a "no-nonsense way" how their files are protected by legislation, and who has seen their file over time, she said. Stevens grew up in foster care in Orangeville, Ont., and in the fall will return to her studies at McGill University's law school, where she is specializing in technology law and privacy issues. She said privacy risks that existed in previous systems can increase in a centralized database.

The challenge of tracking privacy breaches isn't unique to the new system, as previous independent children's aid society databases faced the same problem, according to Elman.

CPIN gives workers access to care history information in a youth's file within their department. The youth's health, criminal and legal records are blanked out in the file and require special permissions to access.

Only restricted files, which are few in number, trigger email notifications to a children's aid society supervisor when an unauthorized person views a record. Youth who have "aged out" of the system are also searchable because there is no retention period for child welfare files.

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