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THE DEPARTMENT OF Children has apologised after the email addresses of 18 people were inadvertently shared with other participants attending online consultation meetings about redress for survivors of Mother and Baby Homes.
One of the people affected by the breach said she and others are “deeply upset and distressed” by the situation.
Laura Angela Collins told The Journal, given the deeply sensitive nature of what people say in the meetings, participants’ privacy should be of the utmost importance to the facilitators and the department.
OAK Consulting, which has been hired by the department to oversee the public consultation process at a cost of €20,000, yesterday emailed the people affected to inform them of the situation.
In response to queries by The Journal, a spokesperson for the department today said they “wished to stress that the Department and OAK are extremely committed to this consultation process”.
“We are deeply appreciative to all the individuals who have taken the time to participate in the process. This incident was entirely inadvertent but nonetheless should not have occurred and is very much regretted.
“We fully understand the upset that this incident may have caused to those concerned and we apologise sincerely for this.”
The spokesperson said the incident “occurred due to an unintended error concerning a diary invitation generated via the Zoom platform, for two Online Consultation Meetings held on Monday 22nd March”.
The invites were sent last Friday, 19 March. A total of 18 individuals due to attend the two meetings on Monday were affected by the breach.
The department’s spokesperson said OAK “understood that when generating this diary request the invitees would only see their own email address. Unfortunately that was not the case”.
“In order to be certain this would not happen again [OAK] ceased use of this function entirely and all invitations for the remaining planned meetings have issued directly from OAK on an individual basis,” the spokesperson said.
They added that the breach will be reported to the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) today.
In an email sent to those affected by the breach, and seen by The Journal, a facilitator from OAK states: “It has come to my attention that due to a system error relating to the invitation for this online meeting, your email addresses [sic] was inadvertently visible to the other people who were attending the meeting.
“This was a breach of your personal data protection rights and I sincerely apologise for this. We have rectified the situation to ensure that this does not happen again.”
OAK notified the department about the breach on Monday evening and the department’s Data Protection Officer was informed.
“An investigation was immediately undertaken to identify how the incident occurred, who was affected and what steps had been taken to ensure that it would not occur again. A full incident report has now been submitted to the DPO”.
‘Deeply upset and distressed’
A number of survivors were among those to take part in the two meetings on Monday. Members of the public can also apply to attend the meetings.
The online consultation sessions started this week and 13 are planned to date, up from the initial 10 due to demand.
One of those affected by the breach said she and other participants are “deeply upset and distressed”, adding that it may put other people off taking part in future meetings.
Laura Angela Collins’ mother, aunt and grandmother all spent time in institutions. She campaigns alongside her mother, Mary Teresa Collins, who spent time in the Cork County Home, then a Magdalene Laundry with her mother, before being moved to Coleman’s Industrial School for Girls in Cobh.
Mary Teresa suffered physical and emotional abuse throughout her childhood, as previously reported by The Journal.
Laura Angela said the importance of participants’ privacy was stressed during the meeting so for people’s email addresses to be inadvertently shared by the consulting firm was “insulting” and “incredibly careless”.
She said both the department and OAK need to “reassure” participants that the issue will not happen again.
“They need to reassure other people that this isn’t going to happen again, somebody should be held accountable, it’s such a basic privacy measure.
“This company is being paid a certain amount, you’d imagine they would do things correctly to ensure the security and privacy of those who do contribute.”
Laura Angela has been the victim of online abuse in the past because of her campaigning so the sharing of her information left her particularly upset.
“I’ve been threatened online and bullied, if my email was passed into the wrong hands I would hate to think what accounts they could easily hack into,” Laura Angela said.
She said she has engaged in the public consultation process in good faith and the “carelessness” of the breach has made her and her mother reconsider sharing any more personal information as part of the process.
Laura Angela said, given the deeply sensitive nature of what people say in the meetings, participants’ privacy should be of the utmost importance to the facilitators and the department.
“If I’m not choosing what happens with my information, it makes me question if I ever want to partake in anything like that again, and other people feel like that as well. I didn’t consent for my information to be given to anyone other than that person who was facilitating the consultation.”
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Mary Teresa is due to take part in an online session next week, but is now concerned about privacy issues. Laura Angela said her mother thinks it’s “disgraceful” that survivors’ rights have been “breached yet again”.
Mary Teresa is among the survivors to contact An Garda Síochána and the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) about the audio recordings of their testimony to the Commission being deleted without their consent.
Laura Angela has also contacted the DPC about the latest breach.
A spokesperson for the DPC told The Journal: “We can confirm that we have received a complaint and are assessing it.”
Last week the department told The Journal that OAK was hired to “expedite” the process of setting up a redress scheme for survivors of mother and baby homes given the “urgency” involved.
They said: “To expedite matters and in recognition of the fact that experienced facilitators are required in order to obtain a broad cross-section of views in this survivor-centred process, the services of OAK were enlisted following a procurement process.
“OAK and their facilitators have long-standing experience of working, with sensitivity and understanding, with a broad range of people and contexts.”
Survivors had raised concerns about the involvement of an outside firm in the process, saying their “trust” in the overall handling of the government’s response to the Commission’s final report is “very low”.
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