RCMP slammed for storing secret files on Canadians

The RCMP has been squirrelling away far too much highly sensitive information about Canadians on secret databases, an audit by Canada's privacy commissioner has concluded.

The RCMP has been squirrelling away far too much highly sensitive information about Canadians on secret databases, an audit by Canada's privacy commissioner has concluded.

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday that tens of thousands of secret files are inappropriately stored in RCMP databanks. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, who released a report on her findings Wednesday, said more than 60 per cent of the files contained in a database of criminal intelligence information should not have been stored there.

In addition, more than 50 per cent of the files in a database about national security investigations were inappropriate. 

"These databanks have been crowded with tens of thousands of files that should not have been there," Stoddart said in a written statement.

"The large number of documents held in these exempt banks when their inclusion was unwarranted is disturbing."

Both of the databanks are called "exempt databanks," meaning they are highly secretive and are supposed to contain only the most sensitive information. RCMP can refuse to confirm or deny the existence of information in an exempt databank when someone asks to see it.

But Stoddart said some people have become the subject of information contained in the banks by simply talking to the wrong person or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Man on file for making hijacking joke

She cited the case of a man on a bus tour who was reported to U.S. customs for joking that maybe he should "hijack" the bus to get even with a chronically tardy tour guide. Some five years later, the incident was still in RCMP exempt files, even though it was clearly a bad joke and not a security threat, Stoddart told reporters at a press conference in Ottawa.

Stoddart, in her written statement, said another file is based on a tipster's police call to report that a man had gone into a rooming house and was involved in drug activity. Police investigated and determined the man had in fact only stopped to have a cigarette outside after dropping his daughter off at school.

Despite police having cleared the man of any wrongdoing, his file still exists seven years later, Stoddart said.

Info stored can have 'harmful impact'

Stoddart said the storing of the information in the databanks could have negative consequences.

"Being named in a national security exempt bank file could have a harmful impact, particularly in a post-9/11 environment," she said.

"For example, it could potentially affect someone trying to obtain an employment security clearance, or impede an individual's ability to cross the border."

She said that is especially troubling is that Canadians can't get access to the information about themselves that is stored in the banks. She said only information that could seriously threaten national security, international affairs or criminal investigations should be stored in such a secretive way.

She noted that she found the alarming number of inappropriate files still present even after an RCMP internal review resulted in the purging of more than 45,000 files last fall.

RCMP call numbers 'misleading'

The RCMP on Wednesday said they are working closely with Stoddart to improve the force's databanks over the next two years.

But RCMP Chief Supt. Dan Killam said the audit numbers are "a little misleading."

While he conceded that more than half the files examined by Stoddart breached RCMP policy, he stressed that only a "single-digit percentage" of those actually broke the privacy law.

"That's not to say that we shouldn't be respecting our own policy as well. Hence, that's why, when this process was going on, we were working closely with her."

New Democrat MP Pat Martin chided the Mounties for their lapses.

"People have a right to know if they're on these lists," said Martin, a member of the Commons ethics, information and privacy committee.

"It's fundamental in any western democracy. This is serious stuff. This is secret police stuff. This is no laughing matter whatsoever."

Audit comes after Arar inquiry

Stoddart announced she would be doing an audit of the RCMP's databanks in 2005 at the Maher Arar inquiry, where the issue of police information sharing was central.

Arar, a Canadian citizen who was born in Syria, was stopped at a New York airport on his way home from a vacation in September 2002. U.S. officials accused him of links to al-Qaeda and deported him to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured for months.

Justice Dennis O'Connor, who led the public inquiry into the Arar case, concluded in September 2006 that misleading information provided by the RCMP "very likely" paved the way for U.S. officials to send the 36-year-old to Syria.

RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli resigned soon after the inquiry conclusions were made public.

With files from the Canadian Press