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Class action lawsuit filed over student privacy breach

12,000 students join suit filed in federal court by Newfoundland lawyer
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Newfoundland lawyer Bob Buckingham has filed a national class action lawsuit on behalf of 583,000 people whose personal information was kept on an external hard drive that was lost by the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (hrsdc).

As previously reported by The Varsity, the lost hard drive contained the personal and financial information of students who obtained Canada Student Loans between 2000 and 2006, including names, social insurance numbers, dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, amounts of money borrowed, and spousal and parental information. The loss was announced on January 11 by the hrsdc, nearly two months after the drive was first reported missing.

Buckingham says that almost 12,000 students have joined the class action suit. “It changes by the moment,” says Buckingham, whose firm has been inundated with phone calls and emails from those affected. Buckingham says he anticipates tens of thousands more will eventually join the suit. Buckingham’s firm website and social media presence have also attracted a considerable following since the press coverage of the suit began late last week.

The lawsuit is seeking compensation for time, expenses, hardship, breach of privacy, stress incurred, and “additional damages to impress upon the government the seriousness of this loss of information.” Although several firms have already filed with courts across the country, Buckingham says he is the only one to have filed with the federal court.

Buckingham says he has requested a meeting with the federal privacy commissioner, the superintendent of the rcmp, and Minister Diane Finley as the next step in the lawsuit. He said he hopes to “discuss ramifications of this issue” and press the government for immediate action to address the situation.

“We have a group of people who are between the ages of 24 and 30 who are affected by this, and they are going to live to the age of 80 or 90, so how is this going to affect them down the road, if this portable hard drive has been stolen or fallen in the wrong hands?” asks Buckingham. “People are going to be living with the issue over their heads for the next 40, 50 to 60 to 70 years. Where is my identity? Will it ever be used? And could it be used by someone down the road?”

Buckingham says one of the primary objectives of his lawsuit is to prompt the government to take a more proactive approach to the privacy breach. “Things have to be changed,” says Buckingham. He has urged Finley to implement new policies to protect those affected from future harm and wants the federal government to pay for the development of software that will monitor transactions through financial institutions for any suspicious activity.

“The department will be making every effort to contact the individuals whose information was lost. This includes direct notification to those for whom we have current contact information,” Finley said in a statement announcing the loss of the drive.

“I want to see the government step in and state very quickly ‘we are looking at this issue’ and put in place programs to deal with this loss in the short term,” said Buckingham.

The suit will also seek to compel the federal government to pay for credit checks, identity protection insurance, lost wages, and other potentially costly side-effects for those affected by the breach. “I want the government to say that because they are suggesting to people to go and get credit checks and buy identity theft insurance, which is what some of the people in the government call-in centres are suggesting, I want the government to say ‘we’re going to pay for that,’” said Buckingham. “I want the superintendent of the rcmp to come out and say this is a security issue.”

Affected students voiced their frustration over the situation to The Varsity when the loss was first announced. Jaroslava Avila graduated from U of T in 2011, and received federal loans in 2005 and 2006. She said she was still unsure if she has been personally affected by the breach.

“This is just one more thing for students to worry about on top of paying thousands of dollars in students loans,” said Avila.

Munib Sajjad, vice-president, university affairs, of the University of Toronto Students’ Union, said he had around $6,000 of federal loans taken out during the time frame in question. His personal information may also have been compromised in the breach.

“I’m kind of baffled, and really, really surprised that our government is losing student records,” said Sajjad.

“This failure by the government to protect people’s identity has certainly raised questions concerning the priority the government is giving to protecting personal privacy,” said Buckingham. “We rely on the government to protect the information they collect on us, and along with the ability to collect goes an obligation to protect.”