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Civil rights groups accuse Ontario police of illegal COVID-19 database use

The defunct COVID-19 database was accessed in more than 95,000 searches by police across Ontario, with Waterloo Regional Police having searched it over one thousand times
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On Wednesday, two civil rights groups accused police forces across Ontario of making illegal searches of the now-defunct COVID-19 database, saying it violated privacy rights of individuals.

Both the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and the Canadian Constitution Foundation (CCF) released separate reports that found many police services had accessed the database to look at COVID-19 results, unrelated to active calls.

In early April, the Ontario government passed an emergency order that allowed police to obtain the names, addresses and date of births of Ontarians who tested positive for the virus. The intent was to help protect first-responders during calls.

Abby Deshman, the criminal justice director of the CCLA tells 570 NEWS not only was access to the database a breach of privacy, but they could not figure out how it was a useful tool for law enforcement.

She says once a positive case was found and put into the system, it could never be taken off the database.

"So you had really outdated test results, and we know that lots of people present a risk of transmitting COVID, and will never have taken a COVID test," she said. "They might not have symptoms, or they may have met the criteria to get tested. So it was---from our perspective---never a useful tools to protect first-responder's health and safety, and a massive privacy violation."

Deshman also pointed out the redundancy around protecting the health of first-responders when they are already expected to take precautions when approaching anyone under the pandemic.

There was also the issue around the lack of consent given around test results being handed over to law enforcement.

"Our medical system relies on doctor-patient confidentiality and the assumption that we all make that when we go for a medical test, those medical results will be used for the purposes of our health, maybe contact tracing, but sharing with law enforcement in a blanket way is quite extraordinary."

The database was shutdown on August 17, after civil rights groups filed a legal challenge against the province after they had found over 95,000 queries were made to the database. The CCLA continued to investigate how the police had used the database, filing a freedom of information act request with the province.

"We had heard from provincial documents now that some police searches had no relationship to the calls that they were getting or were for entirely different cities, and we really don't know why the police would be searching for cities," she said.

Locally, Waterloo Regional Police had searched the database 1,180 times between April 17 and July 20. For comparison, Guelph Police had access the database 4,057 times during the same time. Meanwhile Thunder Bay Police Service (14,831 times) and Durham Regional Police Service (24,624 times) made up around 40 per cent of all searches made.

In a statement 570 NEWS, WRPS says it was the first to incorporate a procedure around the use of the COVID-19 database. It was only ever used to support frontline officers to decide if additional precautions were needed, and no personal data was stored.

You can read the full statement below.

The Waterloo Regional Police Service and the Waterloo Regional Police Service’s Board was the first to incorporate a procedure governing the use of the Covid-19 database.
 
The use and access of this database was consistently managed by our Emergency Operations Centre. Access to the database was granted to limited users in our communication and dispatch centres and no personal information was ever stored.
 
Queries were only made when needed to support frontline officers in making informed decisions about whether to take additional precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when responding to calls for service while the emergency order was in effect.
 
Once the order expired, access to the database was discontinued and the procedure rescinded.

With files from The Canadian Press and 1310 NEWS

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