Northern Sask. checkpoints raise questions about how information is handled: privacy commissioner

The province's privacy commissioner, Ronald Kruzeniski, says he has some questions around information being shared at checkpoints established to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in northern Saskatchewan.

Ronald Kruzeniski wants to know if answers to questions are recorded, and if information will be destroyed

Ronald Kruzeniski, the provincial privacy commissioner, has a number of questions about information that's exchanged at checkpoints like this one outside of Green Lake, set up across northern Saskatchewan. (Don Somers/CBC)

The province's privacy commissioner is raising questions about how the information collected at checkpoints in northern Saskatchewan will be handled.

The checkpoints, established to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in northern Saskatchewan, are something Ronald Kruzeniski said he's never seen in the province before.

The province issued an order in April that restricts all non-critical travel into and out of northern Saskatchewan, and limits travel between communities in the north. Travel for critical goods like groceries, or medical trips, are exempt.

In an advisory issued Tuesday, the privacy commissioner said he had a number of questions about the checkpoints, and wants to ensure privacy concerns were taken into account in their establishment.

"The pandemic has created unusual circumstances in our province and actions must be taken quickly, but in that process privacy legislation still exists and needs to be respected and followed to protect privacy to the extent possible," Kruzeniski said in the statement.

Among the questions he raises are whether travellers' responses to questions they are asked are recorded — and if they are, why they would be recorded and how.

He said the public has the right to know if their responses are being recorded.

"If this gets spread all over, then someone is going to allege a breach of privacy," Kruzeniski told CBC News.

If any information is being recorded, because checkpoints are bound to eventually come down, he asked any municipality, government agency or other local authority to quickly determine how long the information is to be kept.

Kruzeniski recommended the information be kept for "as short a period of time as reasonably necessary" before it is destroyed.

He also noted that some information that may be shared is "need-to-know" only and should be treated as such. 

"Those individuals staffing a checkpoint, if they are from one organization, they have to decide who in that organization needs to know, if anybody," Kruzeniski said. 

"If there's two or three people at a checkpoint and they're from different organizations, which organizations need to know?"

An email from the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency on Wednesday said no personal information about travellers is being collected at provincial controlled checkpoints.

"Vehicles are being stopped and occupants are being provided with information about public health order restrictions," the email said. 

"Information asked is only to determine if travel is eligible under the order."

Kruzeniski said if the purpose of the checkpoints is protection of public health, then only those making decisions about public health would be the only people who need to know those answers.

His Tuesday statement noted that in addition to checkpoints set up by the province, First Nation and Métis communities have also used checkpoints through the pandemic.

While decisions there are governed by band council laws, he suggested his recommendations could also serve as best practices for those communities.

"Making the proper decisions as you get going will prevent you from having breach of privacy concerns," Kruzeniski said.