Athabasca University breached student’s privacy, adjudicator finds

President revealed too much information in e-mail to staff

EDMONTON (CUP) — More than two years after the initial complaint, a provincial adjudicator ruled in favour of a student who complained her privacy was breached by the president of Athabasca University.

Late in September, it was ruled that the president disclosed too much of the student’s personal information to other employees of the institution in an e-mail. The report does not name the person who sent the e-mail, but Dr. Dominique Abrioux was president of the university at the time.

The adjudicator’s report outlined that in June 2004, the student (whose name was not disclosed) contacted several of the institution’s administrators — including a counsellor, the academic co-ordinator, a vice-president, the ombudsperson and the president — to discuss the possibility of resubmitting assignments and rewriting the final exam for one of her courses.

After being advised to file an appeal under the University’s Academic Appeals policy, the student contacted the president by phone. Following the conversation, the president informed the student via e-mail that he would be limiting their future communications to writing and that he would be recommending this approach to all concerned staff.

“During the course of their correspondence, the president forwarded that particular e-mail to employees of the university,” said Wayne Wood, communications director at the Alberta Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Wood explained that the e-mail in question included a sequence of prior e-mails sent by the student, which contained more information than necessary to the other staff members. “Following our investigation, the adjudicator in the case found that [the president] did have the authority to disclose some of the personal information to employees but not all of it,” Wood said. “As a result of that, we’ve asked the university to develop some written policies to clearly outline what should and shouldn’t be forwarded to others through e-mails.”

Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy act has applied to universities since 1999. Tamra Ross, executive director of the Athabasca University Students’ Union, said that the student didn’t come to them for any assistance, but that she supports the adjudicator’s decision.

“It’s really unfortunate that the privacy commissioner took this long for an issue didn’t involve a lot of different issues — it was one thing,” said Ross.

The current president of Athabasca University, Dr. Frits Pannekoek, came into the position in June 2005, after Abrioux left. However, Ross noted that the adjudicator’s report doesn’t clearly state which president forwarded the e-mails.

“And this is really unfortunate because the report just says “?the university president’ which implies that it was the current university president, which it isn’t,” Ross said.

Ross explained that since that time, Athabasca University has appointed a privacy and policy advisor, Kent Nelson, to deal with any questions and concerns about the province’s privacy act.

“It looks like something really good is coming of this because the university has been reviewing all of its policies and making sure that everything is absolutely compliant with privacy,” Ross said.

Nelson explained that this is the first instance where Athabasca University has been ruled in violation of the Alberta privacy act.

“We don’t get very many complaints or requests for information at our institution,” Nelson said. “Our record is good.”

Wood explained that this case was nothing out of the ordinary and that his office deals with a “fair number” of this type of investigation every year.

The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act was amended this past spring (and won’t be up for changes for another five years), but Nelson said that it doesn’t really affect post-secondary institutions.

“We only collect the information that is necessary for providing the educational services at our institution, and when we collect that information, we collect it directly from the student,” Nelson said.

“Anytime we collect the information, we are required by law to advise the student of why we’re collecting it, and under what legal authority we’re collecting it and how we will use that.”

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