Alberta's office of the privacy commissioner has launched preliminary talks with Edmonton police after a series of CBC stories about the controversial practice of carding.

Commissioner's office spokesperson Scott Sibbald said officials have contacted Edmonton police "to ensure they are upholding the access and privacy rights of individuals."

The office also wants to confirm whether police have the authority under privacy legislation to collect personal information from street checks.

"That would be determined by whether this is a legitimate law enforcement purpose to randomly collect and record personal information of individuals," Sibbald said.

Sibbald said his office has many questions about the thousands of random, documented interactions city police carry out each year with people not suspected of criminal activity.

Among them, said Sibbald, are whether police inform people their participation is voluntary and how their personal information will be used.

"At the core of the legislation is, people should have control over the information that they provide to, in this case, Edmonton Police Service," Sibbald said, adding those who provide information also have a right to access and verify the accuracy of those records.

"So that ability to ask for a correction — is that being upheld in this case? And that is a right under the legislation."

Recent numbers provided by Edmonton police show patrol officers stop and document more than 26,000 people on average each year.

Police say such checks are instrumental in solving crime and furthering investigations.

Acting Staff Sgt. Brent Dahlseide, in charge of downtown foot patrols, said police do not inform people they have the right to walk away. He said some of the responsibility should be on individuals to know their rights.

It would be "a pretty big show stopper" to tell people up-front they don't have to talk to officers or provide information, said Dahlseide.

"But I would hate to say that that would be the attitude of every person, given that we're just having normal conversation with a lot of the individuals we speak to every day," he said, adding there are no consequences for those who chose not to provide ID or answer questions.

'Very coercive element' to carding

But D'Arcy DePoe, past president of Alberta's Criminal Trial Lawyers' Association, said carding has a "very coercive element" to it.

D'Arcy DePoe

Lawyer D’Arcy DePoe says there is no way to verify the accuracy of the information recorded in a street check. (CBC)

"Most people don't know their rights," said DePoe.

"They're uncertain about whether they have to talk to the police. And very often what happens is that if you refuse — if you stand on your rights and say, 'Look, I don't have to give you my identification, I don't have to tell you my name, I've not done anything wrong' — in some police officers' minds, that's grounds for further investigation, 'Oh you must be hiding something.'

"And sometimes these things get confrontational."

The recorded information is "essentially secret," said DePoe, who has called for carding to be reviewed.

"There is no means to verify what is on the police computer is accurate," DePoe said.

"They claim it helps solve crime but don't address the issue of whether it's really worth it to us to have our privacy invaded this way. Anecdotal proof is OK for them but they discount totally the anecdotal evidence of those being carded, and the bad feelings and mistrust this creates."

Body cameras used, personal data shared, individuals tracked?

Sibbald said officials will also look at whether body cameras are ever used to collect the information, and if it is shared with other organizations or used to track movement or behaviour of groups or individuals.

"People should be told up front, that is going to be one of the uses of information, to track as a form of surveillance," he said.

Critics say the practice singles out some racial groups, amounting for some to a police state.

Police say racially motivated stops are never acceptable. On Friday, they said they plan to contact two grand chiefs who warned street checks undermine relations with the aboriginal community.

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said last week a review of carding is not necessary because no formal complaints have been made.

In Ontario, carding is now under review by the province. Some opponents want it eliminated. Others are calling for safeguards such as third-party monitoring, an end to arbitrary stops and the provision of receipts that would identify officers.

There is also a push to put limits on how long data is kept and to destroy records that do not fulfil legitimate investigation goals.

Sibbald said police agencies in some situations have broad authority to collect, use and disclose personal information for legitimate law enforcement purposes.

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca   

@andreahuncar