LifeLabs faulted by Ontario, B.C. privacy commissioners for huge data breach

The privacy commissioners of Ontario and British Columbia say the country’s largest medical laboratories failed to protect the personal health information of 15 million Canadian residents in last year’s data theft.

After a joint investigation, the two provincial privacy czars issued a statement Thursday saying that by not implementing reasonable safeguards to protect the data LifeLabs violated Ontario’s health privacy law, the Personal Health Information and Privacy Act (PHIPA), and B.C.’s personal information protection law, the Personal Information and Privacy Act (PIPA).

Among the findings was that LifeLabs didn’t have adequate information technology security policies and information practices in place. The Ontario privacy commissioner’s office also found that while LifeLabs has largely taken adequate steps to notify affected individuals of the breach, its process for notifying individuals of which specific elements of their own health information were compromised was inadequate.

However, the commissioners’ full report detailing how LifeLabs failed wasn’t released because LifeLabs claims that the information it provided to the commissioners is privileged or confidential. The commissioners reject these claims and say the full report will be published unless LifeLabs takes court action.

LifeLabs quickly issued a statement that did not refer to the dispute with the privacy commissioners. Instead, it said the company is reviewing the report. It also outlined several steps LifeLabs has taken since the breach, including appointing a chief information security officer (CISO), who, together with an expanded team, is leading a program of information security improvements. LifeLabs also named new chief privacy officers and chief information officers and says it has accelerated the company’s information security management program through an initial $50 million.



LifeLabs introduces new CISO


LifeLabs aims to achieve ISO 27001 certification, what it calls “a gold standard in information security management.”

“We continue to deploy cybersecurity firms to monitor the dark web and other online locations for information related to the cyber-attack,” the statement said. So far, it added, there hasn’t been a public disclosure of customer data from the attack.

“Since the breach,” the privacy commissioners acknowledged, “LifeLabs has, for the most part, taken reasonable steps to address the shortcomings in its information technology security measures.” But they still ordered the lab to do more.

These orders include improving specific practices regarding information technology security and formally putting in place written information practices and policies with respect to information technology security. They also demand the company ceases collecting specified information and to securely dispose of the records of that information which it has collected.

The Ontario commissioner also ordered LifeLabs to improve its process for notifying individuals of the specific elements of their personal health information which were the subject of the breach and to clarify and formalize its status with respect to health information custodians in Ontario with whom it has contracts to provide laboratory services.

LifeLabs performs over 100 million laboratory tests each year, with 20 million annual patient visits to its locations in the two provinces.

According to a chronology from the privacy commissioners, LifeLabs said it detected the cyberattack on October 28, 2019. A few days later it notified the offices of the two privacy commissioners that cyber criminals had penetrated the company’s systems, extracted data — including name, address, email, customer logins and passwords, health card numbers and lab tests — and demanded a ransom.

The lab results involved 85,000 Ontario customers that were done on or before 2016.

“An attack of this scale is extremely troubling,” outgoing Ontario privacy commissioner Brian Beamish said in a statement. “I know it will be very distressing to those who may have been affected. This should serve as a reminder to all institutions, large and small, to be vigilant  Cyberattacks are growing criminal phenomena and perpetrators are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Public institutions and healthcare organizations are ultimately responsible for ensuring that any personal information in their custody and control is secure and protected at all times.”

B.C. privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy said in a statement he is deeply concerned about the attack. “The breach of sensitive personal health information can be devastating to those who are affected. Our independent offices are committed to thoroughly investigating this breach. We will publicly report our findings and recommendations once our work is complete.”

In its statement, LifeLabs said that “what we have learned from last year’s cyber-attack is that we must continually work to protect ourselves against cybercrime by making data protection and privacy central to everything we do. We have made a commitment through our partnership with experts, the health care sector, governments and IT companies, to become a global leader in protecting health care data.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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