11 May 2008

Sounding the Alarm about Workplace Privacy Issues

I recently attended an IAAP dinner meeting and we had a lawyer speak to us about the proper disposal of confidential documents. As assistants we often work with information that is confidential and we need to use good practices when disposing of these documents.

In Canada document disposal came to the attention of Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner in the filming of a mini-series in Toronto. The Toronto Star reported that as filmmakers were re-enacting events about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, documents were strewn on downtown streets as “fake garbage”. It was discovered that some of these were confidential medical records.[1]

On further investigation it was found that garbage from a Toronto clinic that was earmarked for shredding, instead went to a recycling company where it was sold to the film company. As the papers were blowing in the wind a reporter grabbed one of these documents which happened to be a confidential medical record and the ball started to roll from there.

Privacy is serious business in Canada and the companies involved were held accountable. Imagine being the employees involved in this situation? Our actions can have consequences, including where we put our garbage.

Here are some guidelines that assistants can keep in mind when disposing of documents:

  • If you have any doubt whatsoever shred it or put it in locked shredding bins.
  • Recycling is NOT a secure disposal mechanism. Any document sent to be recycled could be publicly sold and used, as happened in the case noted above.
  • Placing a document in a garbage bin is NOT a secure disposal mechanism.
  • Cleaning staff do not distinguish between documents for recycling and those to be sent for shredding. Don’t think that because you have For Shredding Only written on the box that this will solve the problem. Some cleaning staff may not be able to read and understand English. They just see a box of paper garbage. Don’t assume your instructions will be followed.
  • Beware putting a recycling bin at a common printer as sensitive documents could easily be put in there by mistake.
  • Never leave any sensitive documents in a locked car or trunk. Including while running into the store for a few minutes to pick up an item. It only takes a minute for someone to break into your vehicle and steal a laptop or other confidential work information.
  • Never recycle sensitive documents at home.
With the new privacy laws in Canada, and privacy consciousness around the world, it is even more important to follow good disposal practices for confidential and sensitive documents.

The lawyer who spoke to us also brought up privacy issues when we talk about confidential work issues with our spouse or if we bring work home and leave it around the house for anyone to see. Do we consider that our children may unwittingly share confidential work information that they might see or hear us talking about on a social networking site such as Facebook? This was something most of us had never considered. When we sign our employment confidentiality agreement it obviously doesn’t stop when we leave the building.

Gone are the days when privacy simply meant closing our doors and drawing the drapes. We need to read our workplace privacy policies and make sure we are following them.

[1] Toronto Star, Film shoot uses real medical records, October 2, 2005 (used with permission)

This post is not intended as legal advice.

No comments: