Windsor

Privacy, community trust, equity a concern after Windsor police access COVID-19 database

The Windsor Police Service's decision to access the provincial COVID-19 database has experts concerned the information could be used to unfairly target marginalized and racialized communities, causing mistrust with locals and raising serious concerns around personal privacy.

Windsor ranks 10th in Ontario among police services that used database

The Windsor Police Service accessed the COVID-19 database 1,841 times between April 17 and July 20. Durham Regional Police Service tapped into the database the most, conducting more than 24,000 searches. (Jason Viau/CBC)

The Windsor Police Service's decision to access the provincial COVID-19 database has experts saying it unfairly targets marginalized and racialized communities, causes mistrust with locals and raises serious concerns around a person's privacy.

From April 17 up until July 20 — when the province revoked police access to the trove of personal data — Windsor police searched the database 1,841 times. Out of all the police forces in Ontario, Windsor Police ranked tenth on the list of police agencies that used the database during that period.

"It's very concerning," said Sukanya Pillay, a visiting professor and law foundation scholar at the University of Windsor who specializes in constitutional and human rights issues.

"Any time the police want to encroach upon our personal, identifying information, they have to have a constitutionally sound reason for doing so."

Sukanya Pillay is also the former executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. (Sukanya Pillay)

And Pillay, and others, don't believe it meets that criteria.

"It undermines the confidentiality in the medical system, which undermines patient care," said Abby Deshman, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association's (CCLA) director of the criminal justice program.

Names, addresses, dates of birth

The CCLA released the list, which it calls "alarming," after commencing legal action against the province for giving police this "unprecedented" access to names, addresses and dates of birth for those who tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Ontario revoked police access to that database in July.

The Windsor Police Service declined an interview request by CBC News, instead providing an emailed statement saying its use of the database fell within the requirements and direction from the provincial government.

Sergeant Steve Betteridge with the Windsor Police Service said the information obtained from the COVID database has been purged. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"Information in the portal was only accessed to assist in communicating COVID-19 status information to first responders strictly for the purpose of supporting [Windsor Police Service] personnel in making informed decisions about whether to take additional precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19," wrote Sgt. Steve Betteridge.

Those additional precautions included more personal protective equipment as well as possible decontamination procedures, he added.

"It seems like a very inefficient way to keep first responders safe. We know that COVID-19 is highly contagious and people who are infected can appear asymptomatic," said Pillay. "There's really no rational connection which would be constitutionally required for police or other first responders to access this information."

In a sense you have people who are already overpoliced now being policed once more.-  Sukanya Pillay, University of Windsor visiting law professor

Betteridge clarified in a subsequent email that "only authorized members of the WPS Emergency 9-1-1 Communications Centre had access to the database."

Legally permissible search falls in grey area, expert says

Kristen Thomasen, an assistant law professor at the University of Windsor, who specializes in privacy rights and data collection, said that on the surface, Windsor police approach appears to be reasonable, adding that she fully supports officer safety— but said there are other factors at play. She called use of the database a grey area.

Race-based COVID-19 data isn't available or accessible in Windsor, but in Toronto Black people and other people of colour make up 83 per cent of reported COVID-19 cases while only making up half of the city's population.

Law professor Kristen Thomasen specializes in privacy rights and data collection. (Kristen Thomasen/Twitter)

"As soon as you put it into context, I worry that we start to see the ways in which it's really problematic and can have a disproportionate effect on some people compared to some other communities or individuals," said Thomasen.

"Which just factors into the bigger picture around the ways in which community trust is built, or affected, or negatively affected, possibly undermined by the use of different privacy-invasive technologies or conduct."

The CCLA sent a letter to the Windsor Police Service and its board last month requesting that all COVID-19 information obtained from the provincial database be destroyed. The CCLA said it never received a response.

"Now we have concerns about what happened to that information," said Deshman. "Was it entered into local records? Has it been used in any way? Is it still accessible locally?"

The Windsor Police Service told CBC News information obtained through Ontario's COVID-19 database has been purged.

Marginalized communities could be affected by database search

Abby Deshman is the director of the criminal justice program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. (Submitted by Abby Deshman)

Pillay said there's also concern for people in marginalized or BIPOC communities who are sometimes overpoliced or have experienced discrimination at the hands of law enforcement.

"In a sense you have people are already overpoliced now being policed once more," said Pillay.

"When you inter-lay medical care and law enforcement, you end up pushing those communities in particular away from healthcare services," said Deshman, specifically referencing the Black and Indigenous communities who have had distrust with police.

Durham Regional Police tops list

Other police forces in Ontario accessed the database in far greater numbers in comparison to Windsor. At the top of the list was the Durham Regional Police Service with more than 24,000 searches and the Thunder Bay Police Service with close to 15,000 documented inquiries.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association released data showing how often Ontario police services accessed the province's COVID-19 database. (CCLA)

The Chatham-Kent Police Service accessed the database 108 times, while the Sarnia Police Service did so 57 times and the LaSalle Police Service conducted searches 29 times over the same period.

But some didn't access the COVID database at all, including the Toronto Police Service. A spokesperson wouldn't comment on why that police agency chose not to when they could have.

For Thomasen, she likens the issues raised around police services accessing the COVID-19 database to the Clearview AI controversy, as well as privacy concerns around allowing police to tap into homeowners' doorbell cameras.

"Potentially privacy invasive conduct that is being done with a justification that it's for the community benefit ... but without looking at the big picture about how that actually impacts the community in a negative way," said Thomasen.

About the Author

Jason Viau is a video journalist, TV host and radio newsreader at CBC Windsor. He was born in North Bay, but has lived in Windsor for most of his life. Since graduating from St. Clair College, he's worked in print, TV and radio. Email him at jason.viau@cbc.ca

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