London

London Police snooped on personal health data 10,475 times in 4 months

The London Police Service pried into the personal health data of people who tested positive for COVID-19 more than 10,000 times between April and July, court records obtained by civil liberties groups show.

Legal and civil liberties groups are calling on law enforcement to delete the records

The London Police Service pried into the personal health data of people who tested positive for COVID-19 more than 10,000 times between April and July, court records obtained by civil liberties groups show. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The London Police Service used a provincial database containing the personal health records of people who tested positive for COVID-19 at one of the highest rates in Ontario, snooping on private medical information 10,475 times between April and July.

Law enforcement gained the unprecedented power to access people's personal medical information when the database was shared by emergency order of the Ontario government in April, a period of heightened anxiety about the coronavirus pandemic when the caseload of new infections topped 400 a day. 

The order gave police officers the ability to access the names, dates of birth and addresses of anyone in Ontario who tested positive for COVID-19. 

The power was revoked by the Ontario government on July 22, but only after a group of legal and civil liberties organizations challenged the directive on the grounds that the police access to such data breached provincial privacy protections and was a violation of individuals' constitutional rights to privacy and equality.

Public may not know COVID tests could be accessed by police

Two masked London police officers respond to a routine call at a community health clinic in the city's Old East Village area. Court documents show officers accessed a database for COVID-positive individuals 10,475 times between April and July. (Colin Butler/CBC)

"It's really unprecedented to share such a blanket swathe of personal health information with law enforcement," said Abby Deshman, the director of the criminal justice program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), one of the legal groups that was a party to the lawsuit. 

"We couldn't really see the utility of providing police officers with this information."

Deshman said one of the most serious questions raised in the controversy is whether people being screened for COVID-19 actually knew their health data would wind up in the hands of law enforcement. 

"I think that when people went to get their COVID test, they were being told this wasn't going to be shared with police. They weren't asked for permission."

London only ever had 649 COVID cases as of July 22

One of the most serious questions raised by legal groups is whether people being screened for COVID-19 actually knew their health data would wind up in the hands of law enforcement. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Court records obtained by the CCLA showed police across Ontario accessed the data 95,000 times in four months. Among all the city law enforcement agencies in Ontario, the London Police Service had the fourth highest rate of access, with officers sticking their noses in peoples' personal medical data 10,475 times in four months. 

The London region only ever had a total number of 649 coronavirus cases as of July 22

"It's quite a high number of searches," Deshman said. "When you look at it on a per capita basis, it's quite high as well."

Because the number is so high, the CCLA, the Black Legal Action Centre, Aboriginal Legal Services and the HIV AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario have written a letter to the London Police Services Board

The letter asks the board to ensure the police deletes any information obtained from the provincial COVID-19 database and to conduct an audit on whether individual officers were using the information under appropriate and legal circumstances. 

"It is certainly higher than the provincial average, one of the highest uses in the province and we want to make sure all of the uses of that database complied with the law and policy at the time." 

Private medical data likely used to support charges

Deshman said police also more than likely used the data to support criminal charges. When an uptick in reports of people being charged in connection with spitting and coughing incidents targeting grocery store workers or police officers themselves, investigators could have easily peered into suspect's medical files without their knowledge or permission. 

It's the second time this year the London Police Service has encountered controversy when it comes to surveillance techniques. Five months ago, evidence surfaced the London Police Service had used Clearview AI, the controversial and unregulated surveillance tool that has a tendency to deliver false matches among people from racialized communities. 

Deshman said Black and Indigenous communities often have difficulty accessing healthcare. She said knowing their private medical information would end up in the hands of police would only further fuel both communities' historic mistrust of the police. 

Police Services Board chair Dr. Javeed Sukhera was not available for a telephone interview with CBC News Tuesday. 

The London Police Service did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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