In what’s being called a “shocking” misuse of personal health information, Ontario police services made unauthorized searches of the province’s COVID-19 first-responder data portal — including querying entire postal codes to find active cases of the virus, according to documents obtained by two civil rights groups.
In a memo addressed to all police chiefs in June, Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General said an audit of the COVID-19 database — a controversial and now-shuttered portal for first responders — revealed “many” searches violating the province’s directive that the tool be used cautiously and with precision.
The audit raised “concerns that the portal is being used beyond the express purpose that the government intends,” wrote Richard Stubbings, assistant deputy minister of the public safety division, in a June 11 letter.
Among the unauthorized searches listed: “broad-based” municipal searches with no specific address, including queries of postal codes or of another municipality, and searches of a specific name unrelated to an active call for service.
“I strongly urge police services boards and chiefs of police to ensure that access to this critical information is strictly for responding to a call for service,” Stubbings wrote.
The memo — obtained through a freedom of information request by the Canadian Constitution Foundation, a civil rights charity — is the latest problem stemming from a portal dubbed an “extraordinary” privacy invasion by human rights groups and deemed an unnecessary infringement by Ontario’s privacy commissioner.
“I was shocked when I read the extent of what appears to be abuse of that database,” Christine Van Geyn, litigation director with the CCF, said Wednesday.
“At the same time, when you look at what access was granted under that regulation … it’s not surprising that such a database was abused.”
The temporary portal was created via an emergency order in April, letting first responders including police officers access personal information such as names, addresses and birthdates of people who tested positive for COVID-19. The database was intended to be used solely by 911 operators and only for active calls, to aid efforts to limit the spread of the virus.
The province halted police access to the database in July, after a legal challenge filed by human rights groups including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association argued the portal was an unjustified invasion of privacy.
Data released as part of the CCLA’s lawsuit revealed Ontario police services searched the portal 95,000 times. While some services, including Toronto police, never accessed the portal, a handful of others made up the bulk of the queries.
Durham Regional Police and Thunder Bay Regional Police alone conducted 40 per cent of the searches, with nearly 25,000 and 14,000 searches respectively, according to the CCLA.
In a Sept. 1 report to its police services board, Durham police called the database “extremely unreliable,” saying that, in good faith, its staff adopted broad, “wild-card style” searches to glean results when more precise queries failed.
Heckofajob there, technocrats. Thanks to your efforts, the day is fast approaching when the majority of those who contract COVID will refuse to be tested at all.