Canada: The New And Improved PIPEDA

Last Updated: November 6 2018
Article by Stas Bodrov

I met Logan when we were presenters at a Cyber Security Conference in Toronto. Our interests intersected and we decided to enlighten business owners about cybersecurity developments in Canada. I am a lawyer practicing civil litigation with a keen interest in privacy law. Logan is a cybersecurity and threat intelligence consultant focusing on providing cybersecurity solutions to businesses. This article was begging to be written by us.

The New and Improved PIPEDA: What you need to know and what you need to do

By: Stanislav Bodrov (Strigberger brown Armstrong LLP) and Logan Wolfe (Gearhead Software)

Part 1 – The Amendment

It has become a bit of a jingle – "the question is not if your organization will get hacked, it's when" – but Canadian lawmakers are taking this mentality seriously. There is a clear commitment in Canada to ensure that individuals retain power over their personal information; how it is used; and, most importantly, how it is protected by organizations.

Earlier this year, the EU passed the revolutionary General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). On November 1, 2018, the Canadian Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) will be amended to include mandatory breach notification rules, which are similar to the provisions included in the GDPR. On an International scale, Canada is seen as a leader in personal data protection and the changes to the existing legislation further reinforces that image.

The amendment will require organizations to do three things:

  1. Report data breaches to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada;
  2. Notify the affected individuals who were affected by a data breach; and,
  3. Keep records of every breach of security safeguards.

These requirements will apply to every organization that collects, uses, or discloses personal information in the course of commercial activities in Canada.

The drafters of the legislation prescribe targeted requirements. For instance, a "breach of security safeguards" is defined as a loss of, unauthorized access to, or unauthorized disclosure of personal information resulting from a breach of the organizations security safeguards. This type of breach ranges from an employee accessing a consumer's personal information without authorization (i.e. bank teller accessing information of an ex-spouse to see what they were spending money on) to an outside hacker accessing the organization's network through illicit means. All breaches of security safeguards must be recorded by the organization and are subject to review by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

However, not every breach will require the organization to notify the consumer and be reported to the Privacy Commissioner. Only those breaches that pose a real risk of "significant harm" will trigger these obligations. The current PIPEDA does not define the term "significant harm". However, the new PIPEDA defines it as including bodily injury, humiliation, damage to reputation or relationships, loss of employment, identity theft, negative effects on the credit report and damages to or loss of property.

In the course of determining whether a breach will cause significant harm, the organization must balance a number of factors including the sensitivity of the personal information; the probability of the information being misused; and, other relevant factors specific to each case.

The Regulation states that the organization must give notification "as soon as feasible" after the breach is discovered. There is no definition of this phrase. However, considering the number of reactionary steps that must be taken by an organization, the notification need not be immediate (otherwise it would say so in the Regulation), but it must certainly be considered a top priority in the organization's data breach response plan.

Failure to maintain records of breaches, report breaches to the Commissioner, and notify the affected user, can lead to penalties prescribed by PIPEDA. An organization guilty of such non-compliance will be subject to a fine of up to $100,000. This is in addition to the exposure associated with lawsuits initiated against the organization by the affected consumers and the legal costs associated with defending such actions.  

Part 2 – PIPEDA v. GDPR: Similarities and Trends

The GDPR went into effect in May of this year and was immediately used as a basis for complaints against Facebook and Google. The GDPR, like PIPEDA, requires organizations to disclose to consumers when a company's security mechanisms have been breached. It also requires the organization to disclose to its consumers how their information is going to be used, all in an effort to revert power over personal information back to the individual providing it.

One of the prevalent similarities between the two pieces of legislation is the territorial application of the laws. Specifically, organizations that conduct business in Canada will be subject to PIPEDA as well as the GDPR, if that organization is accessible in the European market. As such, the organization will be required to pay fines prescribed in the GDPR for non-compliance. The GDPR fines are much more severe than those in PIPEDA – up to €20 million or four percent of the organization's annual global turnover. Similar to PIPEDA, the fines are discretionary and are levied based on the blameworthiness of the organization; the sensitivity of the information breached; and, number of other applicable factors.

Some sources note that reported breaches to the Information Commissioner's Office in the UK, quadrupled within a month of the GDPR's implementation1, other sources report a doubling in reporting2. Regardless, one thing is clear, organizations suffered breaches significantly more than they were reporting prior to the implementation of the GDPR. In September, Fieldfisher, a law firm in the UK, reported a ten-fold increase in security breach cases since the implementation of the GDPR.3

If history is any indicator, it is likely that a similar trend will follow in Canada with the passing of the PIPEDA amendments. Companies will be exposed to not just the fines prescribed in the legislation, but also the insipient legal actions that will be based on negligence and violation of privacy.

In essence, the Regulations are forcing organizations to owe a duty of care to their consumers. Implementing effective cyber security strategies to avoid significant financial devastation will be vital to a business' success, while failure to do so will result in significant legal and financial exposure.

Part 3 – Cyber Security Strategies

Security safeguard requirements vary based on the sensitivity of data. However, as a rule of thumb, a strategy's end goal is protecting personal information against loss or theft, as well as unauthorized access, disclosure, copying, use or modification, regardless of the format in which it is held.

The nature of the safeguards will depend on a variety of factors including the sensitivity of the information that has been collected; the amount, distribution, format of the information; and, the method of storage. Implementing these safeguards will affect an organization's reputation. In the event of a data breach and the resulting mandatory incident disclosure to affected customers and third parties, an organization will be forced to demonstrate that adequate security measures were implemented and the organization leadership met the requisite standard to protect its affiliates.

Realistically, risk cannot be reduced to zero without reducing the usefulness of the asset - the goal is to find an acceptable balance between protection and usability. That said, more sensitive information should be safeguarded by a higher level of protection, which will typically decrease the usability of that information. Various types and levels of security controls are vital to a business' cyber security success, these include:

  • Physical measures (CCTV, locks, access cards, restricted access to premises);
  • Organizational measures (security clearances, risk awareness, privacy policy, acceptable use policy); and,
  • Technical measures (network security configuration, role-based access control, firewalls, encryption).

Finally, having a detailed data breach response and business continuity plans will make all the difference in the event of a security incident. These plans cover all preparatory and reactionary steps in case of a breach in great detail. The plans ought to include tiered impact analysis; automated backups; load balancing and IT-focused forensics procedures focusing on determining affected areas and containing damage; escalation and notification practices; mitigation steps; lessons learned; high-level financial and technical reporting; recovery procedures; designated first responders; loss control; and, reputation management.

Closing Thoughts

Data breach response plans are no longer optional – they are mandatory. Organizations will be responsible to ensure that their customer's data is protected with a strategy that meets the standard of care prescribed by the cyber security industry. Additionally, organizations will be required to report breaches to the Privacy Commissioner; inform users of a breach; and, maintain detailed records of all security safeguards breaches. Failure to comply with these requirements may result in significant fines levied pursuant to the amended PIPEDA and/or the European GDPR.

Organizations must ensure to not only have a sufficient preventative mechanism but also a requisite reactionary plan. This includes having a cybersecurity agency on-call to follow a response plan and a competent lawyer to minimize an organization's exposure in legal actions. Cyber liability insurance policies play a vital role in covering the costs of both services based on your own choosing.

For a copy of the actual Regulation, please see: Breach of Security Safeguards Amendments


1. Under GDPR, Data Breach Reports in UK have Quadrupled, BankInfo Security, July 25, 2018

2. GDPR Prompts UK Data Protection Complaints to Double, Out-Law, August 27, 2018

3. Ten-Fold Increase in Security Breach Cases since GDPR, Computing, September 7, 2018

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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