'Zest for making sure bad guys get caught' at Liquor Marts could mean oversharing with police: privacy expert
Civil liberties group says 'good, rights-respecting policies' don’t stem from fear
The expedited rollout of new security measures at Manitoba's Liquor Marts presents the danger that data collected about customers could be misused, or that Indigenous people and marginalized groups may be unfairly targeted, warns a data security expert.
"The theoretical risks are that, in their zest for making sure bad guys get caught, that liquor store employees who are acting from a place of precaution and concern for their customers are going to overshare with police," said Brenda McPhail, who works with the Toronto-based Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
"And the reality is that there are particular kinds of people, particular communities that tend to be targeted for more suspicion by police."
Just over two weeks ago, Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries started scanning the ID of customers entering the Tyndall Market Liquor Mart.
That location was the scene of a violent robbery on Nov. 20 that sent an employee to hospital in critical condition. It was shut down for a week, before it reopened with increased security measures, including the security station at the main entrance where ID is scanned.
The Crown corporation said it plans to roll out the controlled entrances at all other Winnipeg locations over the coming weeks and months.
The new security plan, fast-tracked following the Tyndall Market robbery, was already in the works in response to rampant theft at Manitoba's liquor stores. Police say 10 to 20 such thefts are now reported in Winnipeg each day.
But few details have been released around the new screening measures, other than the Crown corporation saying it plans to hold the data gathered for 24 hours and then delete it, unless it's needed for law enforcement purposes.
Without more information, McPhail warns there's no way to know which Liquor Mart employees can access the scanned IDs and when information would be shared with police.
A spokesperson for Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries said the controlled entrances are in place to "ensure the safety and security of our staff and customers" and the corporation cannot "compromise their effectiveness" by sharing details with the public.
Can't share security details: MLL
McPhail, who directs the civil liberties group's privacy, technology and surveillance project, said there are still significant questions surrounding the way Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries is collecting data — including about some of the details that have been announced.
"I'm not sure what the practical use of storing the information, even for 24 hours, would be — because at the point the individual leaves the store, the expressed purpose for having the information is over. It's done," she said.
The Crown corporation refused to share its policies for data collection and storage regarding the new controlled entrances.
"This document is a security procedures document and therefore we cannot share it," the spokesperson said in an email.
McPhail said it's understandable that MLL wouldn't want to share information about security features, like whether certain stores might have plainclothes officers working, which could tip off would-be thieves.
But she said that's not the same thing as refusing to explain how it decided on the policy or the steps it's taking to protect privacy. As a Crown corporation, McPhail said, it has a responsibility to be transparent about its practices.
"It's an abnegation of their responsibility to the public to refuse to answer questions about their policies and the safeguards they've put in place," she said.
"Genuine safety is living in a society where you are physically safe to roam around and also physically safe from excessive intrusion by the state."
Fear shouldn't drive policy: privacy expert
Malcolm Bird, an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg, said Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries' status as a government-owned corporation makes addressing the surge of thefts at its stores especially difficult.
Crown corporations are subject to more scrutiny and are held to higher levels of transparency and public accountability than their private-sector counterparts, said Bird, who studies the evolution of Canadian Crown corporations and their relationships with the public.
"They want to just do their job and stay out of the news and the media. That's the general aim of Crown corporations," he said.
Bird said in his view, the robbery at the Tyndall Market Liquor Mart — and the "disturbing" video of the assault on an employee that was shared online after — were enough to affect public sentiment.
"Your average Manitoban is actually quite bothered by this event, by this situation," he said. "And my sense is that they also will happily participate and give up this information to [Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries] in the hopes of alleviating what is quite a serious situation that we have."
Michelle Gawronsky, who heads up the union that represents Liquor Mart employees, said staff at the Tyndall Market location are feeling safer since the secure entrance was installed. The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union president said she was told Liquor & Lotteries is working on installing two more in the near future.
In the days following the Tyndall Market robbery, Gawronsky said dozens of employees reported trouble sleeping, vomiting and disordered eating.
It's the kind of fear McPhail said can drive the implementation of security policies without adequately considering privacy rights.
If that's the case, "what we're afraid of looms larger than everything else, and we may not be thinking the most clearly about how to deal with the problem," she said.
"We know from bitter experience that good, rights-respecting policies don't usually come when we're afraid."
McPhail said Canadians have the constitutional rights to both safety and privacy.
"There is absolutely no reason that any government body should ask members of the public to choose between their safety and their other rights," she said. "We deserve both."
Effect of systemic racism
McPhail said there are some parallels between the issue of carding in Toronto — police street checks that have been shown to disproportionately target people of colour — and the possibilities for privacy violations at Manitoba Liquor Marts.
While in Toronto — where rules have been brought in to restrict street checks — it's young black men who are particularly targeted for police attention, in Winnipeg, it's likely Indigenous people, McPhail said.
"And it's people like that, who might be vulnerable and marginalized and already subject to undue attention from police, that are likely to get caught up in this kind of data collection and maybe have their information shared and have suspicion cast on them."
She said it's difficult to know how much oversight is involved in the controlled Liquor Mart entrances, partially because of the lack of information provided by the Crown corporation.
"There's no reason to think that those same mechanisms, that same sort of systemic racism that unfortunately does exist, wouldn't come into play here in terms of who we decide maybe looks sufficiently suspicious to keep their data and share it," she said.
"And then there's a risk that police, because they are also interested in doing their jobs and keeping people safe, may direct suspicion to individuals who don't really deserve it."