Civil liberties group warns of ‘invasion of privacy’ after Ontario gives police COVID-19 test data

A Canadian civil liberties organization is sounding the alarm on what it says is “an extraordinary invasion of privacy” after Ontario moved to provide police forces with the personal information of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 — including names, addresses and dates of birth.

Earlier this month, the province issued an emergency order allowing police, firefighters and paramedics to access what it called “critical information” about individuals confirmed to be infected. The move was meant “to protect Ontario’s first responders and stop the spread of COVID-19,” the province said in a news release April 6.

“Strict protocols will be enforced to limit access to this information and will only be used to allow first responders to take appropriate safety precautions to protect themselves and the communities they serve,” the release said, adding that first responders would no longer have access to the data after the emergency declaration is lifted. 

According to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, at the time of the order, Ontario’s privacy commissioner objected to the move, but the regulation was passed despite the province being unable to demonstrate it was necessary for public safety. 

“Providing personal health information directly to law enforcement is an extraordinary invasion of privacy,” the organization said a tweet Friday. 

“Such a measure should only be taken when clearly authorized by law and absolutely necessary given the particular circumstances.”

Groups issue open letter to question legality of move

The CCLA, together with the Black Legal Action Centre, HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario and Aboriginal Legal Services, has written to Ontario’s solicitor general outlining its concerns with the move. 

“We appreciate that first responders are on the front lines of a public health crisis. Protecting the health of communities and first responders is rightly a priority,” the letter begins. 

The groups point out any such database would fail to paint a true picture of those with the virus, pointing out many who carry or are infected with the disease may not have been tested. On top of that, they say there is no indication that the date of a COVID-19 test will factor into the information, meaning people could be wrongly identified as having the infection after they recover.

They also say there is a “real risk that using this database will create a false sense of security” for first responders dealing with people not on the list. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones emphasized the emergency order is time limited and meant to combat the spread of the virus among first responders. 

Toronto police seek ‘clarification on terms of use’

“Strict protocols are enforced to limit access to this information and it is used only to allow first responders to take appropriate safety precautions to protect themselves and the communities they serve,” Stephen Warner said in a statement.

“During this outbreak, it is imperative that our first responders have access to this essential information when they are preparing to respond to an emergency in order to protect themselves and stop the spread of COVID-19.” 

The statement did not specify what measures the government will take to prevent secondary use of personal medical information or outline any limits on access to the information within police, fire or paramedic services.

Nor did it address how the data will be stored or how it might enforce the deletion of any data recorded from the database after the emergency order lifts.

It’s not immediately clear which police forces are using the province’s database or exactly how. 

In a statement to CBC News, the Toronto Police Service says it has not accessed the data.

“We continue to work with the government on clarification regarding Terms of Use,” the statement from spokesperson Meaghan Gray reads.

Durham Regional Police confirm they have received access to the database.

Spokesperson Dave Selby told CBC News “there are strict rules on its use and then it is removed once the emergency is over. We are following the strict guidelines, like everyone else.”

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