Medvet Science Pty Ltd: Own motion investigation report
Medvet Science Pty Ltd (Medvet), trading as Medvet Laboratories, has been found in breach of the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (Privacy Act) following an investigation by the Australian Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim (the Commissioner).
On 20 July 2011, the Commissioner opened an own motion investigation in response to media reports that customer information held by Medvet had been compromised.
The media reports claimed that names, home and work addresses of Medvet customers who had ordered paternity, drug and alcohol test kits had been made available on the internet.
The Commissioner’s investigation focused on whether Medvet’s handling of the personal information it held was consistent with the National Privacy Principles (NPPs) contained in Schedule 3 of the Privacy Act. These principles include requirements about when personal information may be disclosed (NPP 2) and what security measures must be in place to protect the personal information (NPP 4).
The Commissioner found that the accessibility of address information on the internet constituted unlawful disclosure of personal information in contravention of NPP 2. The Commissioner also concluded that Medvet did not have reasonable steps in place to protect personal information, in contravention of NPP 4.
Medvet was notified by a journalist from The Australian newspaper that certain client information from orders placed via Medvet’s online Webstore could be accessed via a Google search.
Medvet advised that upon receiving this information it:
- immediately notified CP Moore (the company that hosts Medvet’s Webstore)
- closed the Webstore
- initiated actions to identify the extent of the security breach and to remedy the situation.
The Webstore application offered by CP Moore used software developed by Iciniti Corporation, which is located in Canada.
Medvet initially advised that up to 692 online orders had been made accessible and captured via a Google cache. The orders were primarily for parentage or illicit drug testing services or products. However, a subsequent report on the incident by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited (Deloitte) which was commissioned by SA Health stated that 848 online orders were stored in Medvet’s online web store. The testing undertaken by Deloitte showed that 29 of these orders had been accessed over a two month period.
Medvet said the information available via the Google cache was limited to the ‘ship to address’ from each order, details of the service/product requested and the price paid for that service/product. In that regard, no customer names, client bank account details or details of any test results were available online.
Medvet advised that as soon as it became aware of the incident it identified the cause of the breach and took steps to remedy the situation by:
- engaging two IT specialist organisations to assist with removing the cached records from Google
- escalating the issue to Google; Medvet indicated that by the early afternoon of Monday 18 July 2011 all cached records had been removed from Google
- advertising in major newspapers to make people aware of the incident and requested any person who believed they had been affected to contact Medvet directly
- placing notices on the Medvet website and responding to all enquiries.
A forensic investigation into the incident by Deloitte was commissioned by SA Health. Deloitte was also commissioned to undertake an assessment of all of Medvet’s internet-facing security systems to identify potential additional security vulnerabilities.
The Deloitte forensic investigation concluded:
- the incident in relation to the Webstore occurred because the online ordering software provided to Medvet by lciniti Corporation and CP Moore did not include appropriate security
- the development and quality management practices associated with the Webstore application were deficient. Multiple security flaws were identified and there was an apparent lack of security testing associated with the product
- no names of clients or test results were released and no client could be reasonably identified
- there was a need for Medvet to further develop security policies and standardisation of information security testing and compliance activities to formally define information security roles
- Medvet management responded quickly and appropriately, referring all concerns back to the software provider
- the security practices within Medvet’s internet-facing systems needed updating.
Medvet has adopted the recommendations from the Deloitte forensic report and employed a consultant to develop strategies to implement these improved security processes.
Medvet also advised that, despite the extensive advertising by Medvet and media exposure of this incident, Medvet received no customer enquiries from individuals who may have been affected by the incident.
Relevant provisions of the Privacy Act
Medvet regularly handles personal information, including sensitive information and is required to comply with the 10 NPPs contained in Schedule 3 of the Privacy Act, which regulate the way organisations handle personal information.
‘Personal information’ is information that identifies an individual or could reasonably identify an individual. The Privacy Act defines ‘personal information’ as:
... information or an opinion (including information or an opinion forming part of a database), whether true or not, and whether recorded in a material form or not, about an individual whose identity is apparent, or can reasonably be ascertained, from the information or opinion.
The Commissioner’s investigation focused on whether the incident was an ‘unauthorised disclosure’ of personal information and therefore whether the handling of personal information was consistent with:
- NPP 2 (use and disclosure)—in particular NPP 2.1, which provides that an organisation must only use or disclose personal information for the primary purpose for which it was collected, unless one of a number of exceptions apply
- NPP 4 (data security)—in particular NPP 4.1, which requires organisations to take ‘reasonable steps’ to protect the personal information they hold from misuse and loss and from unauthorised access, modification or disclosure.
Privacy Commissioner’s findings
NPP 2 Use and disclosure
In general terms an organisation discloses personal information when it releases information to others outside the organisation.
In the report conducted by Deloitte, it is stated that information had been captured by Google cache and that information included billing and shipping address details in addition to service order details. The report outlined the following exposures:
- April 2011—there was insufficient data to form any conclusions regarding the extent of exposure, if any
- May 2011—one customer order was viewed two times on Google cache
- July 2011—28 customer orders were viewed 174 times by a maximum of 149 individuals.
In summary, 848 orders including address information were stored in Medvet’s online web store and that these were accessible via Google search. After reviewing the Deloitte report and other information provided by Medvet, the Commissioner formed the view that having regard to the nature of Medvet’s business, including that its customers were individuals as well as commercial entities, that the accessibility of address information on the internet constitutes unlawful disclosure of personal information.
The Commissioner was satisfied that the disclosure of personal information of customers was not permitted by any exceptions in NPP 2. For that reason, the Commissioner was of the view that Medvet was in breach of NPP 2.
NPP 4 Information quality and security
The Commissioner looks at an organisation’s security safeguards when assessing whether it has taken reasonable steps to comply with NPP 4.1. Such safeguards could include:
- physical security measures that, for example, only allow authorised users to enter the premises
- secure storage and destruction facilities
- computer and network security measures
- communication security that, for example, protects emails from unauthorised intrusion and interception
- security protocols that include policies and procedures that regulate how staff and others with access to personal information will access and handle that information.
Whether measures taken to secure personal information are considered to have been ‘reasonable steps’ will depend on the organisation’s particular circumstances. For example, the size of the organisation, how the organisation handles the personal information it holds, and the type of information that it holds will be relevant factors.
In deciding what security safeguards are reasonable to comply with their obligations under NPP 4.1, organisations should consider a range of measures including:
- taking steps to identify security risks to personal information held by the organisation
- developing policies and procedures that reduce identified risks
- having appropriate IT security settings governing system access, and monitoring and measuring performance against relevant Australian and International standards. It was clear from the Deloitte’s forensics report that multiple security flaws existed in the software provided by lciniti and hosted by CP Moore. Medvet was therefore putting individuals’ personal information, including sensitive health information, at risk of being compromised by using software with these security flaws.
It is the Commissioner’s view that Medvet did not have reasonable steps in place to protect the personal information it held at the time of the incident and therefore did not meet its obligations under NPP 4.1.
The Commissioner notes, however, that Medvet acted swiftly to identify the security risks as soon as it became aware of the incident. Further, since the incident, Medvet has taken steps to improve its security systems and develop policies and procedures that reduce identified risks.
The Commissioner concluded that the accessibility of address information of Medvet’s customers on the internet constituted a disclosure of personal information. This disclosure was not permitted by the exceptions under NPP 2. This disclosure was, therefore, a breach of NPP 2.
The Commissioner considers that, at the time of the incident, Medvet did not have an adequate level of security in place to protect the personal information, including sensitive health information, it held. For that reason, Medvet did not meet its obligations under NPP 4.1 the Privacy Act.
Businesses need to make sure that appropriate privacy and security measures are considered when they are purchasing or contracting out the build of IT systems. Ideally, these measures should be built in at the beginning of the design process. Business owners are responsible for taking reasonable steps to ensure that their systems are secure.
Acronyms and abbreviations
Commissioner — Privacy Commissioner
Cth — Commonwealth
Deloitte — Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited
Medvet — Medvet Science Proprietary Limited
NPPs — National Privacy Principles (contained in Schedule 3 of the Privacy Act)
Privacy Act — Privacy Act 1988
SA Health — South Australian Health
 Guidelines to the National Privacy Principles, p 23.