Ottawa police investigate after private homicide report shared in mass email

Ottawa police mistakenly released an internal document about a Saturday night homicide that contained the names of witnesses, their statements and their personal information.

Report contained names of witnesses, phone numbers, statements to police

Ottawa police are investigating after a homicide took place in Ottawa's south end. (Leah Hansen/CBC)

Ottawa police say they're investigating how an internal document about a Saturday night homicide that included the personal information of witnesses ended up being shared in a mass email.

Police found a man dead in a hotel room at the Residence Inn by Marriott on 1172 Walkley Rd. around 11:00 p.m.

A 24-page document on the homicide was released Sunday morning to nearly 200 email addresses, including those belonging to members of the media and City of Ottawa officials.

It contained the names of witnesses, their statements and their personal information, as well as details of the alleged homicide.

The document was recalled shortly after and police asked those who received the report to destroy or delete it.

The report was sent out due to "human error," Ottawa Police Service Chief Charles Bordeleau​ said Sunday afternoon.

"It's obviously something we are not pleased with," he said by phone. 

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson told reporters Sunday a breach like this is not acceptable and he would be speaking to Bordeleau about what happened and what's being done to avoid it happening again.

Insp. Patricia Ferguson of the Ottawa Police Service speaks to reporters outside the Walkley Road hotel where a man was found dead on Sept. 15, 2018. (Leah Hansen/CBC)

Could jeopardize safety

Insp. Patricia Ferguson, from the major crime unit, said the information contained in the document could potentially jeopardize the safety of individuals and communities.

She said police have notified the people identified in the report about its mistaken release, and have conducted a risk assessment regarding their personal safety.

It has the potential to compromise our ongoing investigation.- Insp. Patricia Ferguson

Police have also launched an internal investigation that will look into how the report was sent out, Ferguson said. 

"It has the potential to compromise our ongoing investigation," she said. 

"It's something that we will be taking a look at and limiting the impact as much as possible on the investigation so that it doesn't impact it any further than it has already."

As of 6 p.m. Sunday, no arrests had been announced in relation to the homicide.

Ottawa police's major crime unit is continuing to investigate.

Questions of data protection

Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian said more could have been done to protect the data contained in the document. 

She said encrypting the information, or even adding a password to the PDF file, would have prevented the document from being inadvertently shared.

"Privacy and security by design is all about proactively embedding much-needed privacy protective measures into your operation," she said. "So when accidents happen — and they will — you're covered."

Those affected by the release of the document, such as the witnesses named in the report, have the option of filing a complaint with the provincial or the federal privacy commissioner, Cavoukian added.

Ann Cavoukian says that encrypting the information in the Ottawa Police Service document, or even adding a password, would have prevented it from being inadvertently shared with nearly 200 email addresses. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

Incident in Saskatchewan

A similar incident happened last month in Saskatchewan, when the Regina Police Service inadvertently sent a mass email containing a watch commander's log that included personal information.

Regina police reached out to that province's information and privacy commissioner following the privacy breach, which the force's chief also chalked up to human error.

Ferguson said the Ottawa Police Service may notify Ontario's privacy commissioner if the internal investigation finds it is warranted. 

When asked about the breach Sunday, Mayor Jim Watson said he'd be keeping a close eye on the results of the OPS investigation. 

"My biggest issue is making sure this doesn't happen again," Watson said. "Because obviously, a breach of this kind of privacy has ramifications and is obviously not acceptable." 

With files from Leah Hansen and Joanne Chianello