Thunder Bay

Why were police in Thunder Bay, Ont. so curious about your COVID-19 status? Civil rights groups want to know

Thunder Bay police must answer for their surprisingly high rate of searches in a database that revealed the name, date of birth and address of people who tested positive for COVID-19, said the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Thunder Bay police averaged more than 150 COVID-19 database searches per day

Thunder Bay police accessed the COVID-19 database at a rate more than 10 times greater than any other police service in Ontario, but aren't saying why. (Christina Jung/CBC)

Thunder Bay police must answer for their surprisingly high rate of searches in a database that revealed the name, date of birth and address of people who tested positive for COVID-19, said the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).

The Ontario government ended police access to a COVID-19 database on July 22 after a court challenge by civil rights groups.

Information released during that legal process revealed Thunder Bay police had searched the database more than 150 times per day, on average, between April 17 and July 22, according to the CCLA. That amounts to 14,800 searches, or a rate ten times the average number of searches by other police forces across the province.

Thunder Bay had fewer than 100 reported COVID-19 cases during the time the data was available to police.

"It's a very high number of queries for a small population," said Abby Deshman, criminal justice program director for the CCLA. ."We have no idea why there would be so many queries."

The Thunder Bay Police Service has offered no explanation for the rate at which they were searching health information.

"We are reviewing the questions and issues raised in the [CCLA] media release," said police spokesperson Chris Adams in an email to CBC.  "We will be addressing them in a report to our Police Services Board in the near future and will be better able to comment after that."

Abby Deshman, a lawyer with the Canadian Civil Liberties Union, says Thunder Bay police must explain their surprisingly frequent use of the COVID-19 database. (Submitted by Abby Deshman)

The CCLA has asked the police services board to conduct an audit and report to the public on how the information was used and why it was accessed so often, Deshman said.

The group is also calling on the police service to show that it has deleted any of the health information that may have been stored on its own servers.

CBC News asked police board chair Georjann Morriseau how the board would be following up on the request for an audit but had not received a reply as of Tuesday afternoon. 

'This is about trust'

The intensive use of the database raises particular concerns in a police service that is dealing with a finding of systemic racism through two independent reviews, Deshman said.

"This is about trust," she said. "Trust between the community and the health care system and trust between the community and police. We know that trust is in crisis in Thunder Bay with the Indigenous community."

People were not told when they went for COVID-19 testing that the results would be available to police, she said.

"Because Indigenous people and Black people are over-policed, they know the discriminatory impact of their names being in a police database," Deshman said. 

Indigenous and Black people also face discrimination within the health care setting and the release of "really personal information about their body" to police risks making people even less likely to seek the care they need, she said.

The province said it granted police access to the COVID-19 database so officers could better protect themselves from becoming infected.

But Deshman said that argument doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

"We are all told that we need to take universal precautions" because anyone could be an asymptomatic carrier or have the virus but not have been tested "and police are in the same boat," she said.

While she is relieved that police no longer have access to private health information, Deshman said that it's critical for Thunder Bay police to be transparent about why they were so interested in it.