Saskatchewan Commissioner recommends clean desk policy for lawyers

On November 27th, the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner faulted the Saskatchewan Legal Aid Commission for failing to have and maintain a clean desk policy – i.e., a policy requiring files to be put away and locked overnight – given cleaning staff had unsupervised after hours access to its office. The IPC relied on the Commission’s own policy, which encouraged but did not mandate clean desks. The matter came to the IPC’s attention after cleaning staff left two layers of doors open one night.

Saskatchewan Legal Aid Commission (Re), 2019 CanLII 113284 (SK IPC).

Legal Privilege and Data Security Incident Response – Law and Practice

I’m off to a cyber conference in Montreal this week to sit on a panel about threat exchanges. My role will be to address the legal risks associated with sharing threat information and a university’s ability to effectively assert a confidentiality interest in the same information. I’m genuinely interested in the topic and have prepared not just one, but two papers!

Here is the first one – a nuts and bots presentation on privilege and data security incident response. I hope it is useful to you. Feedback welcome through PMs.

NIST’s recommended password policy evolves

As imperfect a means of authentication as they are, “memorized secrets” like passwords, pass phrases and PINs are common, and indeed are the primary means of authentication for most computer systems. In June, the National Institute of Standards and Technology issued a new publication on digital identity management that, in part, recommends changes to password policy that has become standard in many organizations – policy requiring passwords with special characters.

Here is what the NIST says:

Memorized secrets SHALL be at least 8 characters in length if chosen by the subscriber. Memorized secrets chosen randomly by the CSP or verifier SHALL be at least 6 characters in length and may be entirely numeric. If the CSP or verifier disallows a chosen memorized secret based on its appearance on a blacklist compromised values, the subscriber SHALL be required to choose a different memorized secret. No other complexity requirements for memorize secrets SHOULD be imposed.

The NIST believes that the complexity derived from special characters is of limited benefit to security, yet creates (well known) useability problems and promotes “counterproductive” user behaviour – writing passwords down or storing them electronically in plain text. It’s better, according to the NIST, to allow for long passwords (that may incorporate spaces) and use other protective measures such as password blacklists, secure hashed password storage and limits to the number of failed authentication attempts.

The NIST publication includes other related guidance, including a recommendation against routine password resetting.

NIST Special Publication 800-63B – Digital Identity Guidelines (June 2017)

Saskatchewan health authority criticized for slow incident response

Good incident response involves nailing your timing – not going too fast or too slow. 

On August 17th the Saskstchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner held that a health authority breached the Saskatchewan Health Information Privacy Act by failing to respond to an incident in a timely manner. 

The Commissioner’s report does describe a dilatory response – with a discovery of “snooping” in mid October 2015, an investigation that led to a paid suspension at the end of January 2016, notification to the Commissioner at the end of February 2016, notification to the Commissioner towards the end of March that the breach was bigger than first reported and eventual notification to affected individuals in July 2016. 

Think and don’t react, and you can even pause to momentarily to gain confidence in a next critical step, but always keep the ball moving.

Investigation Report 030-2016 (17 August 2016, Sask OIPC).  

USB key treated as a private receptacle by labour tribunal – but why?

On March 29th the Grievance Settlement Board (Ontario) held that a government employer did not breach its collective agreement or the Charter by examining a USB key that it found in the workplace.

They key belonged to an employee who used it to store over 1000 files, some of which were work-related and allegedly confidential and sensitive. Remarkably, the employee also stored sensitive personal information on the key, including passport applications for his two children and a list of his login credentials and passwords. The key was not password protected and not marked in any way that would identify it as belonging to the employee.

The employee lost the key in the workplace. The employer found it. An HR employee inserted they key in her computer to read its contents. She identified the key as possibly belonging to the employee. She gave the key to the employee’s manager, who inserted it in his computer on several occasions. The manager identified that the key contained confidential and sensitive information belonging to the employer. The manager then ordered a forensic investigation. The investigation led to the discovery of a draft of an e-mail that disparaged the manager and had earlier been distributed from an anonymous e-mail account.

The GSB held that the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy – one so limited as not to be as “pronounced” as the expectation recognized in R v Cole. The GSB also held, however, that the employer acted with lawful authority and reasonably. The reasonableness analysis contains some helpful statements for employers, most notably the following statement on the examination of “mixed-use receptacles” (my words):

The Association argues that the search conducted by Mr. Tee was “speculative” and constituted “rummaging around” on the USB key. It asserts that if Mr. Tee had been interested in finding files which might contain government data, he would have or should have searched directories which appeared to be work related, such as EPS, TPAS or CR. I do not find this a persuasive argument. As noted in R. v. Vu, in discussing whether search warrants issued in relation to computers should set out detailed conditions under which the search might be carried out, such an approach does not reflect the reality of computers: see paras. 57 and 58. Given the ease with which files can be misfiled or hidden on a computer, it is difficult to predict where a file relevant to an inquiry will be found. It may be filed within a directory bearing a related name, but if the intention is in fact to hide the file it is unlikely that it will be. Further, the type of file, as identified by the filename extension, is not a guarantee of contents. A photograph, for example can be embedded in a Word document. Provided that the Employer had reasonable cause to view the contents of the USB key in the first place (as I have found there was in this case), an employee who uses the same key for both personal and work related purposes creates and thereby assumes the risk that some of their personal documents may be viewed in the course of an otherwise legitimate search by the employer for work related files or documents.

I learned about this case shortly before it was decided and remarked that it was quite bizarre. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would be so utterly irresponsible to store such sensitive information on a USB key. This is one reason why I’m critical of this decision, which treats this employee’s careless information handling practice as something worthy of protection. The other reason I’m critical of  this decision is that it suggests the expectation of privacy recognized in Cole is higher than contemplated by the Supreme Court of Canada – which remarked that Richard Cole’s expectation of privacy was not “entirely eliminated” by the operational realities of the workplace. Not all of our dealings with information demand privacy protection, and in my view we need to make the reasonable expectation of privacy threshold a real, meaningful threshold so management can exercise its rights without unwarranted scrutiny and litigation.

I also should say that it’s very bad to stick USB keys found lying around (even in the workplace) into work computers (or home computers), at least without being very careful about the malware risk. That’s another reason why USB keys are evil.

Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario (Bhattacharya) v Ontario (Government and Consumer Services), 2016 CanLII 17002 (ON GSB).

Criminal reference checks for current hospital employees ruled improper

In a decision from last May that just came to my attention, Arbitrator Stout ruled that a hospital’s policy that required all current employees to undertake vulnerable sector criminal record checks violated its nurses collective agreement. 

Although British Columbia legislation supports periodic checks on vulnerable sector employees, the hospital’s policy was first of its kind in the Ontario hospital sector. Ontario employer’s have had difficulty justifying such checks. Arbitrator Picher’s comment about the distinction between pre-employment and in-employment checks in City of Ottawa is both authoritative and restrictive. 

The person who presents himself or herself at the door of a business or other institution to be hired does so as a stranger. At that point the employer knows little or nothing about the person who is no more than a job applicant. In my view, the same cannot be said of an individual who has, for a significant period of time, been an employee under the supervision of management. The employment relationship presupposes a degree of ongoing, and arguably increasing, familiarity with the qualities and personality of the individual employee. The employer, through its managers and supervisors, is not without reasonable means to make an ongoing assessment of the fitness of the individual for continued employment, including such factors as his or her moral rectitude, to the extent that it can be determined from job performance, relationships with supervisors and other employees, and such other information as may incidentally come to the attention of the employer through the normal social exchanges that are common to most workplaces. On the whole, therefore, the extraordinary waiver of privacy which may be justified when a stranger is hired is substantially less compelling as applied to an employee with many months, or indeed many years, of service.

Mr. Picher did state that in-employment checks can be used for employees exercising “particularly sensitive functions.” 

In this case, Arbitrator Stout held that the employer had not proven a “current problem” or “real risk.” Arbitrator Stout was also significantly influenced by the structural problem with vulnerable sector checks – i.e. they return sensitive “non-conviction information” for which employers generally have no need.

Rouge Valley Health System v Ontario Nurses’ Association, 2015 CanLII 24422 (ON LA).

Cybersecurity and data loss (short presentation)

Here’s a 10 minute presentation I gave to the firm yesterday that puts some trends in context and addresses recent breach notification amendments.

CORRECTION. I made a point in this presentation that the Bill 119 amendments to PHIPA remove a requirement to notify of unauthorized “access” – a positive add given the statute does not include a harms-related threshold for notification. Section 1(2) of the Bill, I have now noticed, amends the definition of  “use” as follows: “The definition of ‘use’ in section 2 of the Act is amended by striking out ‘means to handle or deal with the information” and substituting ‘means to view, handle or otherwise deal with the information.’ The removal of “access” from the breach notification provision will therefore not invite a change.