7,500 people to get texts asking for info in Frederick John Hatch homicide, OPP say

Ontario Provincial Police send texts to about 7,500 people seeking information about an unsolved 2015 homicide.

Texts in English, French will be sent Thursday to numbers that used a cell tower in area victim was last seen

Ontario Provincial Police are sending texts to thousands of people Thursday seeking information on the unsolved 2015 homicide of Frederick John Hatch. (OPP)

In a move they're describing as "extraordinary" and "unprecedented," Ontario Provincial Police will send text messages to about 7,500 people on Thursday to ask for information about an unsolved homicide. 

Investigators are calling it a "digital canvass" — the high-tech equivalent of knocking on thousands of doors for information.

The partially burned body of Frederick John Hatch, a 65-year-old from Toronto, was discovered by a motorist on the side of a road near Erin, Ont. — a small community about 50 kilometres west of Toronto. 

The body was found just before 6:45 a.m. ET on Dec. 17, 2015. It was located east of 10th Line off Wellington Road 124, just north of Erin.

Hatch had last been seen in Ottawa the day before, at about 1 p.m., inside a Dollar Tree discount store near West Hunt Club and Merivale roads.

OPP don't know how he got from Ottawa to Erin, but Hatch was known to hitchhike. When he died he was wearing a denim vest with Disney characters on the back, a black leather jacket, a blue and white bandana, glasses and black Harley Davidson boots. He was carrying a red duffel bag.

OPP have been using this van as a billboard to advertise a $50,000 reward and plea for information in the case, but the force said it hasn't received any tips.

'A few simple questions'

The texts — one in English and one in French — will be sent to thousands of people Thursday.

The numbers were obtained from a cell tower near the Ottawa discount store. 

The texts will ask people to head to a website to "voluntarily answer a few simple questions to possibly help the OPP solve this murder," according to an OPP media release issued Wednesday.

OPP obtained the numbers from cellphone companies by filing a court order. No names or other contact information was provided, OPP said.

The force will keep the numbers on file until the killing is solved, officers said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Investigators will also consider calling the numbers of people who don't respond voluntarily, but they would be required to obtain another court order to do so.

Anyone with information about Hatch's murder is asked to call OPP at 1-888-310-1122 or the nearest police authority, or anonymously via Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).

Anyone who receives a text message also has the option to call the OPP's dedicated tip line at 1-844-677-5010 to speak directly with a homicide investigator.

'Innovative technique'

Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who is not directly responsible for the actions of the province-run OPP, said this process could be a productive crime-solving measure if used judiciously.

"The police are using an innovative technique in doing this," he said Wednesday.

"They will need to be sure that they are explicitly following the law and the charter and all of the provisions about court supervision that apply in order to make sure that they are pursuing this matter appropriately and with all the proper safeguards in place."

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the mass texting could be a productive crime-solving measure if used judiciously. (CBC News)

Ann Cavoukian, the province's former information and privacy commissioner, said the process should raise some red flags because of the possibility of "function creep," in that the police are collecting massive amounts of metadata on law-abiding citizens and they could go further still.

"We live in a free and democratic society, without having to account for our time and whereabouts," she said in an interview.

Former privacy czar 'nervous' 

She also said she is "nervous" that the information obtained in this case could end up being used in another.

"I was hoping that if the individual they texted didn't respond within pre-determined period of time the metadata would be destroyed, but already that's not the intention. I would want some really strong controls."

The former commissioner, and now director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto, said there could also be the presumption of guilt if someone decides not to respond to the OPP's text — a non-answer could be seen as an admission of wrongdoing.

"If you don't respond maybe you have something to hide? Privacy is all about freedom, and we have to be able to preserve that freedom, and not be looking over our shoulders."

Det. Insp. Andy Raffay said those fears are largely unfounded, and the police can be trusted to protect information lawfully obtained through a court order.

"The cellular numbers received through the production order remain part of an active homicide investigation, and they will be kept confidential. I want to emphasize responding to the text message and answering the simple questions is completely voluntary," he said.