Guelph police answer questions about accessing provincial COVID-19 database
KITCHENER -- The Guelph Police Service said it didn't save or store any personal information accessed through the province's COVID-19 database earlier this year.
The database, which was shut down following a legal challenge by a group of human rights organizations, gave police access to the public health records of people who had tested positive for COVID-19. Aboriginal Legal Services, the Black Legal Action Centre, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario were all parties to the lawsuit.
The CCLA released data in August showing how often the database was accessed by police forces across the province. The Guelph Police Service (GPS) used the database 4,057 times between April 17 and July 20.
WHY WAS THE DATABASE USED IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Staff Sgt. Mike Davis, who oversees the communication unit, answered questions from the CCLA about why the GPS accessed the database during those dates. Guelph police had the sixth-highest access rate of any force in the province.
His answers were shared in the agenda for the Guelph Police Services Board meeting on Thursday.
Davis said none of the data about a person's COVID-19 status was stored locally by the force. Since no information was saved by the force, he also said none of the information needed to be deleted.
"Direct access of the COVID-19 database was only by authorized users, all of whom were members of the Communications Unit at the time the database was active," Davis said.
The names of the authorized users were provided to the Ministry of the Solicitor General prior to granting them access to the COVID-19 information.
"COVID-19 status information must only be used to prevent, respond to or alleviate the effects of the COVID-19 emergency, such as ensuring appropriate measures are taken to protect police personnel when responding to a call," Davis said. "The COVID-19 portal is another tool to assist officers in making an informed decision about the appropriate level of precaution to take when attending a call."
WHY WAS IT ACCESSED SO OFTEN?
When asked why the force accessed the information so many times, Davis said Guelph police had no way to audit their use of the database.
"Communicators accessed the database only when required in order to determine the COVID-19 status of individuals known to be involved in calls (that officers would interact with), and incident locations," he said.
Davis said the database query would be recorded in relation to a call for service, and not associated with personal information or results. He also said there may have been "double counts" in the portal if there was a typographical error when inputting names or addresses.
Guelph police said it didn't keep a running tally of how many times the database was accessed and also didn't compare it to other force's access.
"The portal checks were undertaken, at all times, in accordance with the legal parameters established by the province and were conducted to protect our GPS first responder members and our fellow fire and EMS first responder partners and, ultimately, all other members of this service and our fellow fire and EMS organizations in order to maintain continuity in the delivery of the high quality of emergency response services the citizens of Guelph have come to expect," the agenda said.
DATABASE: HELPFUL TOOL OR PRIVACY CONCERN?
Abby Deshman, the civil justice program director with the CCLA, said the information provided to police was an incomplete database of people who could present health risks to first responders.
"We're quite concerned about the privacy impacts, as well as the equality impacts," she said.
Deshman added it's "reassuring" to learn that all forces they've heard from, including Guelph police, have deleted any personal information or didn't store it to begin with.
"Now we have outstanding concerns about what has happened to the personal health information that they did access while the database was live," she said.
Both Guelph police and Waterloo regional police said they accessed the database to keep their officers and other first responders safe. But Deshman said people should be able to choose what information they share with law enforcement.
"If a person is lying to police, then that means they're not comfortable sharing medical information with police," she said. "That's their prerogative."
Deshman said the ultimate concern is why the information was available in the first place.
"The ultimate concern there though is that our medical system relies on trust and confidentiality that you share if your doctors and your medical providers," she said. "I think we have to understand that sometimes information like that needs to be shared with other doctors, certainly with public health in this context, but the rationale for sharing it with law enforcement we never understood."
In comparison, the Waterloo Regional Police Service accessed the database 1,180 times.
Chief Bryan Larkin said there were 41 people who were authorized to access the database, and they used the information to advise officers whether or not they needed personal protective equipment while attending a call for service. All of the people who accessed the database were civilians, not uniformed officers.
The Durham Region Police Service accessed the information the most, using the database 24,623 times. Thunder Bay police accessed it 14,831 times.
With files from CTV News Kitchener's Krista Sharpe and The Canadian Press