Canada: Frequently Asked Questions – Compliance With PIPEDA's Security Breach Obligations

Last Updated: March 15 2019
Article by Bradley J. Freedman, Éloïse Gratton and Elisa Henry

Most Read Contributor in Canada, February 2019

A. Background and Definitions

What activities are regulated by PIPEDA?

PIPEDA regulates the collection, use and disclosure of "personal information" in the course of a "commercial activity" by private sector organizations in all provinces and territories except British Columbia, Alberta and Québec (each of which has a substantially similar personal information protection law).

PIPEDA also applies in all provinces and territories to the collection, use and disclosure of personal information in the course of a commercial activity by all organizations that operate a "federal work, undertaking or business" (e.g. banks, telecommunications and transportation companies) or that transfer personal information across a provincial border for consideration.

What is "personal information"?

"Personal information" is defined in PIPEDA as "information about an identifiable individual". Information will be about an identifiable individual where there is a serious possibility that an individual could be identified through the use of the information, alone or in combination with other information. Certain kinds of personal information (e.g. certain business contact information and information about an employee of an organization that is not a federal work, undertaking or business) are not regulated by PIPEDA.

What is a "commercial activity"?

"Commercial activity" is defined in PIPEDA as "any particular transaction, act or conduct or any regular course of conduct that is of a commercial character, including the selling, bartering or leasing of donor, membership or other fundraising lists".

What is a "breach of security safeguards"?

"Breach of security safeguards" is defined in PIPEDA as "the loss of, unauthorized access to or disclosure of personal information resulting from a breach of an organization's security safeguards [required by PIPEDA] or from a failure to establish those safeguards". The required security safeguards include physical, organizational and technological measures, appropriate to the sensitivity of the personal information, to protect the personal information (regardless of the format in which the information is held) against loss, theft and unauthorized access, disclosure, copying, use or modification.

What are the security breach obligations?

A "breach of security safeguards" gives rise to three obligations on the organization in control of personal information affected by the breach: (1) report the breach to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (the "Privacy Commissioner"); (2) give notice of the breach to all affected individuals and to certain other organizations and government institutions; and (3) keep records of the breach.

The reporting and notification obligations apply only if it is reasonable to believe the breach of security safeguards presents a "real risk of significant harm" to an individual. The record-keeping obligation applies to every breach of security safeguards.

What is a "real risk of significant harm"?

"Significant harm" is defined as including "bodily harm, humiliation, damage to reputation or relationships, loss of employment, business or professional opportunities, financial loss, identity theft, negative effects on the credit record and damage to or loss of property".

PIPEDA provides that the factors relevant to determining whether a breach of security safeguards creates a "real risk of significant harm" include: (1) the sensitivity of the personal information involved in the breach; (2) the probability that the personal information has been, is being or will be misused; and (3) other prescribed factors (none of which have been prescribed at this time).

The Guidance explains that some personal information (e.g. medical records and income records) is almost always considered to be sensitive, but most information can be sensitive, depending on the context. Consequently, when assessing the sensitivity of personal information affected by a breach, it is important to consider the circumstances of the breach and the potential resulting harms to individuals. The Guidance provides a number of questions to consider when assessing the probability of misuse of personal information. For example:

  • Who actually accessed or could have accessed the personal information?
  • Is there evidence of malicious intent (e.g., theft, hacking)?
  • Were a number of pieces of personal information breached, thus raising the risk of misuse?
  • Has harm materialized (demonstration of misuse)?
  • Was the information lost, inappropriately accessed or stolen?
  • Has the personal information been recovered?
  • Is the personal information adequately encrypted, anonymized or otherwise not easily accessible?

What organization is responsible for compliance with the security breach obligations?

The security breach obligations apply to the organization that has "control" over the personal information affected by the breach. PIPEDA does not define the word "control". Nevertheless, "control" is generally understood to reflect PIPEDA's accountability principle, which provides that an organization is responsible for personal information "under its control". PIPEDA provides the following paradigmatic example of control: "An organization is responsible for personal information in its possession or custody, including information that has been transferred to a third party for processing".

The Guidance explains that if an organization (the "principal organization") transfers personal information to a third party for processing and a breach occurs while the information is with the processor, then the security breach obligations remain with the principal organization (which is the organization in control of the personal information).

The Guidance cautions that business relationships can be complex with organizations playing shifting roles regarding personal information, and determining which organization has personal information "under its control" requires a caseby-case assessment. For example, if a processor uses or discloses personal information for purposes other than providing services for the principal organization, then the processor is acting as a principal organization in control of the information when used or disclosed for those other purposes and must therefore comply with the security breach obligations.

Do the security breach obligations apply only to incidents caused by hacking or other criminal activities?

No. The security breach obligations apply to any breach of security safeguards, regardless of the cause, that affects personal information under an organization's control. For example, the security breach obligations would apply to a breach involving paper records of personal information or a breach caused by an error by an organization's personnel.

Are there any exemptions for small businesses?

No. All businesses that collect personal information in the course of a commercial activity are subject to the security breach obligations. There are no exemptions for small businesses.

Are there any exemptions for small breaches?

No. The security breach obligations apply to any breach of security safeguards that affects personal information under an organization's control, regardless of the number of individuals affected or the amount of personal information involved.

The record-keeping obligation applies to every breach of security safeguards. The reporting and notification obligations apply only if it is reasonable in the circumstances to believe the breach of security safeguards presents a real risk of significant harm to an individual.

Do other laws impose similar personal information security breach obligations?

Yes. It depends on the nature of the organization handling the personal information, the province/territory in which the organization is based or where the information was collected, and the type of personal information involved.

The Alberta Personal Information Protection Act imposes similar reporting and notification obligations regarding incidents involving the loss of, or unauthorized access to or disclosure of, personal information that present a real risk of significant harm to an individual.

As of March 1, 2019, the British Columbia Personal Information Protection Act and Québec's Act respecting the protection of personal information in the private sector do not impose similar obligations regarding breaches of security safeguards for personal information, but the provincial privacy commissioners have encouraged private sector organizations to voluntarily report and give notice of personal information security breaches

There are various provincial/territorial health information protection statutes that impose similar obligations on health information custodians regarding breaches of security safeguards for personal health information.

Some sector-specific statutes impose similar cybersecurity incident reporting obligations.

Canadian common law and civil law might also impose obligations to give notice of a personal information security breach to affected individuals and organizations.

B. Breach Reporting Obligations

If an organization suffers a breach of security safeguards involving personal information under the organization's control and it is reasonable to believe that the breach creates a real risk of significant harm to an individual, then the organization must report the breach to the Privacy Commissioner.

How quickly must a report be filed?

A report must be filed with the Privacy Commissioner "as soon as feasible after the organization determines that the breach has occurred". There is no statutory definition of "as soon as feasible", or any maximum reporting period.

What information must be contained in a report?

A report of a breach of security safeguards must be in writing and must contain:

(1) a description of the circumstances of the breach and, if known, the cause;

(2) the day on which, or the period during which, the breach occurred or, if neither is known, the approximate period;

(3) a description of the personal information that is the subject of the breach to the extent that the information is known;

(4) the number of individuals affected by the breach or, if unknown, the approximate number;

(5) a description of the steps that the organization has taken to reduce the risk of harm to affected individuals that could result from the breach or to mitigate that harm;

(6) a description of the steps that the organization has taken or intends to take to notify affected individuals of the breach; and

(7) the name and contact information of a person who can answer, on behalf of the organization, the Privacy Commissioner's questions about the breach. The report does not need to include personal details

The report does not need to include personal details about affected individuals unless necessary to explain the nature and sensitivity of the information.

Since all required information might not be immediately available, an organization may file an initial report and later file supplementary reports when the organization obtains additional information about the breach.

The OPC has provided a template PIPEDA breach report form, but organizations can report in any format they see fit provided that the report includes all required information.

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