Oops! Unencrypted health info on Denmark’s entire population was sent to China contractor

Denmark may be the first nation to experience a privacy breach that affects the entire population thanks to two mishandled CDs holding data from an organisation that monitors contagious diseases.

Danish authorities learned of the nationwide data breach after an employee at a firm contracted by China’s embassy in Denmark handed over two CDs containing unencrypted health data on ostensibly all of its residents.

Denmark’s data protection authority, Datatilsynet, on Wednesday reported the breach, which occurred in early 2015, affects 5,282,616 people residing in the Nordic nation between 2010 and 2012. Denmark’s total population was 5.5 million in 2012, according to the World Bank.

Datatilsynet said that personal and health data was exposed in the breach, but not names or addresses. Local media have reported that personal information included national identification numbers.

Danish authorities have't held anyone responsible for the breach, but blamed Denmark’s postal service for delivering the parcel to the wrong address.

Worryingly for Danish residents, the sender of the CDs was Statens Serum Institut (SSI), which operates under Denmark’s Ministry of Health. According to SSI’s website, it is “responsible for preventing and controlling infectious diseases, congenital disorders and biological threats”. It monitors health issues ranging from incidence of whooping cough to sexually transmitted diseases in the country.

Datatilsynet said that SSI had sent the CDs by registered post to Denmark’s statistics bureau, Statistics Denmark, in February 2015. Instead of arriving there, it was delivered to the Chinese Visa Application Centre in Copenhagen, a privately run firm.

While Chinese embassies in major markets directly handle visa applications, across the Nordics, the Chinese government contracts out front desk processing to private firms.

According to Datatilsynet, a woman who works at the firm opened the package when she received it despite the parcel being addressed to Statistics Denmark. The woman claimed she mistakenly opened the package and upon realising her error personally delivered the package to Statistics Denmark.

Datatilsynet said it had no reason to not to accept the employees claim, though acknowledged that the leak could have had consequences for people affected.