Kitchener-Waterloo

Guelph Police use of COVID-19 database 'abnormally high,' human rights groups say

The Guelph Police Service accessed a provincial COVID-19 database an “abnormally high number of times” this spring, according to a group of human rights organizations that launched a legal challenge against the province on the matter.

Police in Ontario had access to people's COVID-19 test results this spring and summer

The Guelph Police Service searched a provincial COVID-19 testing results database 4,057 times between April 17 and July 20 this year. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

The Guelph Police Service accessed a provincial COVID-19 database an "abnormally high number of times" this spring, according to a group of human rights organizations that launched a legal challenge against the province on the matter.

In early April, the Ontario government passed an emergency order that allowed police to obtain the names, addresses and birth dates of people who had tested positive for COVID-19.

The province has since ended access to the database, after a legal challenge filed by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in partnership with Aboriginal Legal Services, the Black Legal Action Centre and HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic.

The organizations argued that allowing police to access this information violated people's rights to privacy and equality. They dropped the lawsuit after the province ended access to the database.

Guelph police accessed the provincial COVID-19 database 4,057 times between April 17 and July 20, according to data released in the context of the legal action.

The service was the fourth-highest per-capita user of the database in the province, ranking below the Thunder Bay Police Service, the Kawartha Lakes Police Service and the Durham Regional Police Service.

"It's just a lot of personal health information about the people that live in the Guelph area," said Abby Deshman, director of the criminal justice program with the CCLA.

The City of Guelph has a population of 138,183 people, according to the most recent Guelph Police Service annual report.

Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health's online tracker shows there have been 251 COVID-19 cases in the city.

The Waterloo Regional Police Service was twenty-third on the list of per-capita users of the database. In a statement, police spokesperson Cherri Greeno said access to the database was granted to limited users in the service's communication and dispatch centres, and that no personal information was ever stored.

Calls for audit

In a letter to the chair of the Guelph Police Services Board, the groups said the service used the database an "abnormally high" number of times and expressed concern about whether this was appropriate. 

"Transparency and accountability require that the public be informed of the reasons for the Guelph Police Service's unusually high number of searches against the database," the groups wrote. They called for an audit of who used the database on behalf of Guelph police, and why. 

Similar letters to the other top five per-capita users of the COVID-19 testing database have been posted on the CCLA website.

The human rights groups are also asking all local police services for information about how they are storing people's data, and who has access to it. They want police to destroy all health information collected to date. 

Across the province, police in Ontario searched the COVID-19 database more than 95,000 times.

In response to questions from CBC News, a spokesperson for Guelph police referred the request to the police services board.

A request to the police services board was met with an out-of-office reply Tuesday.

Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie, who also sits on the police services board, was unavailable for comment Tuesday, a spokesperson told CBC News. 

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association posted this chart on its website. The CCLA says the numbers are sourced from a letter from Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General, dated August 7, 2020. (Canadian Civil Liberties Association)
The CCLA says it wants services who used the database "heavily" to conduct an audit of whether the information was accessed appropriately. (Canadian Civil Liberties Association)

With files from The Canadian Press

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