01/10/2013 06:53 EST | Updated 03/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Watchdog launches probe into federal privacy breach

Canada's Privacy Commissioner has launched an investigation into a privacy breach by the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development after a USB key that contained confidential information from 5,000 Canadians was lost.

Human Resources and Skills Development says an employee reported the USB key that contained personal information, including Social Insurance Numbers, of about 5,000 Canadians was missing on Nov. 16.

HRSDC notified the privacy commissioner's office on Dec. 21 that the data had been lost.

The federal department, which oversees many files, such as pensions, old age security, Employment Insurance and childcare tax credits, said there is no evidence the missing information has been used for fraudulent purposes.

Anne-Marie Hayden, a spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, said 250 people have contacted their office to complain about the privacy breach.

“For the number of people that have been potentially affected and I think it's in the few thousand, I would say these are significant numbers,” Hayden said.

Hayden said the privacy commissioner will investigate to find out what went wrong this time.

“What kind of safeguards are in place, what kind of training is involved, what happened, why did happen, how did it happen,” she said.

Hayden says the commissioner can only make recommendations.

The federal department said it's also doing an internal investigation into the privacy breach.

Saint John woman upset

Christine Foley, a Saint John resident, was contacted by the federal government in December and advised that her information was involved in the privacy breach.

“I was pretty upset, knowing that my information is lost, my social insurance, my education, my medical history,” Foley said.

While the federal department said there is no evidence to show the missing information has been used fraudulently, but Foley said she is not convinced.

“How do they know, what evidence do they have to let me know that, where is the device,” she asked.

The Saint John woman said she’d like the investigation to expand beyond the internal department investigation and the privacy commissioner’s office.

Foley said she would like to see the police involved in the investigation.

This isn’t the first time Human Resources and Skills Development has experienced a privacy breach.

In the federal privacy commissioner’s annual report, she said there were 80 privacy breaches by federal departments last year and almost 25 per cent were reported by Human Resources and Skills Development.