OTTAWA - The Canadian Wheat Board, apparently for no reason, shared "sensitive information" about farmers with companies that handle grain, says a newly released document.
An internal audit completed last year says the wheat board couldn't explain why it sent farmers' "confidential personal financial data" to the taxman and so-called handling agents.
"The CWB has been sending confidential personal financial data to Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and other organizations for an unidentified period of time," says the audit.
"There does not appear to be any known requirement for the CWB to be sending any individual permit data to third parties. During the course of our review, through numerous inquiries, we were unable to determine why this sensitive information is being sent out.
"It appears to be a task that is done as 'it has always been done' but no one was able to provide us with the exact reason, if there is one."
But the wheat board says it actually stopped sending information to the revenue agency two years before the audit was done.
Farmers must obtain permit books each year to do business with the wheat board. Permit books contain farmers' social insurance numbers, business numbers, delivery logs, contract details and other information.
But the internal audit, dated June 2008, found the wheat board gave out some of that information too freely.
"The CWB is sharing personal producer information and details of the business that they conduct with the CWB to third parties. Although the CWB Act requires that we collect this information (SINs) there does not seem to be anything that requires us to send out any such information," the document says.
"The CWB collects a lot of personal data on producers and we need to be cautious that we are not releasing information unnecessarily and or without producer consent."
The Canadian Press obtained the document, prepared by the wheat board's corporate audit services team, under the Access to Information Act.
But the agency now questions the findings of its own auditors.
The wheat board gives farmers' information only to companies it does business with, a spokesman said. That information relates to land farmers hold, their deliveries and other account information.
"They are not receiving the SINs," spokesman John Lyons said. "They are receiving basic account information to accept deliveries from a farmer."
He stressed no privacy rules were violated. The wheat board also says the report does not find or allege any mishandling of farmers' information.
"The audit didn't find any breach of any privacy provisions or any mishandling of information," Lyons said.
"What it was focused on was trying to establish a document trail around some of the purposes of the information."
But Lyons did not clarify why the auditors took issue with such allegedly non-sensitive information being shared. "That's what we're having trouble understanding as well," he said.
The wheat board's top auditor, Barry Horan, told The Canadian Press that anything related to personal information gets his team's attention.
"Personal information is something that ... we're concerned with," said Horan, director of corporate audit services.
"Just in general, because it's personal information. So when we see it, we've always got our antenna up just to make sure it's well protected. It's personal (but it) doesn't mean it's highly sensitive."
The audit recommended there be a "clear documentation trail" around what information is shared with third parties, and why it is being sent. It also recommended the wheat board withhold farmers' personal information from the Canada Revenue Agency or other organizations unless there's a good reason to do so.
Lyons said the wheat board stopped sending any information to the revenue agency in 2006. But it wasn't clear why the audit, done two years later, said the wheat board was still sharing information with the federal tax agency.
"That, I believe, was a miscommunication," Horan said. "We were advised that that information was being sent to CRA because it had been done for years and years, and people we were talking to did not realize it had stopped being sent."
In the audit, the wheat board's management responded that the "other organizations" identified in the review are handling agents - of which there are dozens - that need farmers' personal information to issue permits, contracts and take deliveries.
The handling agents must sign agreements spelling out how they are allowed to use the farmers' personal information, and what they must do if the information is compromised.
The head of the National Farmers Union says while he's not overly troubled by his personal information going out to third parties, the wheat board should have a valid reason for sharing it.
"If there's no good reason to do it, I would urge the wheat board to stop doing it," union president Stewart Wells said. "But I'm not concerned that some (grain) elevator company ... has that information."
Controlled by western Canadian farmers, the Canadian Wheat Board is the world's largest marketing agency for wheat and barley. The Winnipeg-based organization sells grain to more than 70 countries and returns all sales revenue, less marketing costs, to Prairie farmers.