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Ontario Cops Can See Who’s Tested Positive for COVID-19, Rights Group Warns

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association called police access to coronavirus data an "extreme invasion of privacy," and are now asking the Ontario solicitor general to justify the move.

by Anya Zoledziowski
Apr 24 2020, 7:47pm

Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj (CP)

Police across Ontario were quietly given access to a database containing the personal data of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, says the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

The database includes names, addresses, and birthdays, the CCLA tweeted on Friday.

“It’s not clear how police are going to use this information,” Abby Deshman, the director of CCLA’s criminal justice program, told VICE.

Deshman said the CCLA became concerned after reports surfaced last week that multiple local police forces were trying to figure out how to use the data.

The Ontario government issued an emergency order in early April that said people’s COVID-19 status could be shared with first responders.

The order allows “police, firefighters, and paramedics to obtain COVID-19 positive status information about individuals with whom they are coming into contact.”

The measure was issued even after the government failed to demonstrate to the province’s privacy commissioner that the order was necessary to maintain public safety, CCLA said.

“Now, Ontarians’ personal health information has started to flow to law enforcement,” CCLA said.

When asked for comment, the solicitor general’s office referred to the original media release detailing the time-limited emergency order.

In a letter to Ontario’s solicitor general, CCLA said providing personal health information directly to law enforcement is an “extreme invasion of privacy.”

The letter is also signed by the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario, the Black Legal Action Centre, and the Aboriginal Legal Service.

Besides infringing on privacy, the data provided to law enforcement will likely be underinclusive and inaccurate, the letter says. First, because Ontario has restrictive guidelines that control who can get tested, many people who have tested positive for COVID-19 won’t show up in the dataset.

“Targeting only individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 will be ineffective at protecting frontline workers,” the letter says, adding that it’s unclear what meaningful protective measures first responders can take based on the data if it’s incomplete.

The data allegedly doesn’t list when people tested for COVID-19, meaning positive statuses could be out of date.

“This means that old, outdated test results could incorrectly identify people as having COVID-19 when they have already recovered and are no longer contagious,” the letter says.

The directors from the four signatories are calling for the solicitor general to outline the purpose of the data sharing; what information—from any COVID-19 diagnosis database—will be provided to police; how first responders will use the data; what measures will be taken to protect privacy; will local policies and procedures dictate who gets access to information and when; and finally, what, if any, oversight will monitor the measures that have been put in place.

—With files from Joseph Cox and Jason Koebler

Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.

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