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MLAs flag possible student privacy breach
Public accounts document lists hundreds of names and loan remissions

Kirsten Fenn
Northern News Services
Friday, April 7, 2017

MLAs are sounding the alarm over a public document listing the names of more than 300 individuals and the amount of their student loans.

NNSL photograph

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly questioned whether publishing the names of individuals and the amount of their student loans follows privacy regulations on Tuesday. - Kirsten Fenn/NNSL photo

The list is included in the GNWT's 2015-16 public accounts document and names people who have been granted forgiveness for student debt.

The loans range from as little as about $300 to more than $10,000 per person, totaling $923,977 altogether.

But some people are questioning whether naming the individuals breaches privacy laws.

"These people, I'm sure, did not consent to the release of this information and it's not through some fault or act of their own," said Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly.

He voiced his concerns about the list of student names during a review of the public accounts on Tuesday at the legislative assembly.

"We want our students to come back here, we want them to work here and because they've come and done that, they end up on this list," O'Reilly said.

Jamie Koe, comptroller general with the Department of Finance, said the government is looking into the issue, although he believes it is abiding by the rules.

"We think we're following the Financial Administration Act in disclosing any remissions," Koe said.

According to Section 65 of the Financial Administration Act, public accounts must include information about any forgiveness of debt owed to a public agency. It does not state how detailed that information should be.

Koe added he'd have to talk to staff at the Department of Education, Culture and Employment about what students are signing off on.

"I'm not a lawyer, but I don't believe (the act) requires the disclosure of the individual names and amounts," O'Reilly said, suggesting Koe reach out to the NWT privacy commissioner. "This is not bad debt. This is a loan remission. It's very different than some of the other information that's presented in that schedule."

Elaine Keenan-Bengts, information and privacy commissioner for the NWT, said it sounds as though the document could breach students' privacy, although she stressed she would need more information to make a conclusion.

"If this was a public document, I would have some concerns," she said. "I'd have to do a full review, which would involve getting from the public body the reasoning behind the disclosure of the information."

O'Reilly said he would prefer the public accounts document include only the number of students and their loan totals without releasing individual names in the future.

It's not the first time MLAs have made the request.

The Standing Committee on Government Operations tabled a report on the 2014-15 public accounts in November, which included a recommendation for the same change.

It suggested that reporting only the amount of loan remissions would protect people's privacy.

Koe said he would contact the privacy commissioner.

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