By attending local police board meetings in recent years, Stephen Harrison has hoped to hear about interesting things in the policing realm that may warrant filing a freedom-of-information request so he could get a behind-the-scenes look.
After seeing instances elsewhere of police monitoring local activists, journalists, government officials and others, he decided to see if he’d been the subject of such checks given his regular online critiques of Greater Victoria police.
Last year, Harrison requested records of queries into himself through the Police Records Information Management Environment (PRIME) database.
That led to him complaining to B.C.’s privacy watchdog, which substantiated his complaints and found the Victoria and Saanich police agencies accessed his personal data without being authorized to do so.
“I thought it was inappropriate, I couldn’t see any reason why they were looking me up in the PRIME database,” Harrison said. “They have incredible access to sensitive information, they should be very careful of how they’re using it and it shows they’re a bit cavalier with their approach to privacy.”
A Victoria police officer searched Harrison’s name in the database one week after he submitted a request in 2017 for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) reports. Saanich police staff members ran his name through the database two days after he submitted a request for records in January 2019, and his information was accessed again in March of that year.
Investigations by B.C.’s privacy commissioner’s office found the Victoria officer and Saanich staff members, respectively, “could not” and “were unable” to recall the reason they queried Harrison’s name in the PRIME system.
“In this case, the named (VicPD) officer was responsible for gathering the reports you requested and as you had not requested your personal information as part of that access request, there was no need for them to utilize the PRIME system to access your personal information,” one of the privacy office’s decisions said.
The decisions noted the inability to recall why Harrison’s name was searched and the privacy investigator said in both decisions that the purpose of using PRIME “would be rather apparent.”
“The passage of time would have little-to-no effect on one’s ability to recall the reason for accessing it,” the decisions said.
“If it happened to me, it’s probably not a one-off so I would suggest that more needs to be done to ensure the police are respecting our personal information, especially given how much power they have over folks’ lives,” Harrison said. “What were they going to do with the stuff they found?”
The situation hasn’t made him feel safer in his own community.
“If this is someone who potentially is annoyed with you, now it’s a police officer who has personal information about you that they should not have,” he said. “In terms of contributing to feelings of safety or community safety, that doesn’t help.”
Harrison would like to see new policies requiring police staff to document their reason every time they access PRIME – noting Saanich police has a similar requirement for off-duty officers – and departments should be subject to audits on other instances of unauthorized access to personal data.
The police departments agreed the access was unauthorized in their respective privacy office decisions.
Victoria police told Black Press Media it’s taken steps to address the situation and the department takes privacy obligations seriously. The decision noted VicPD spoke to the officer about the breach and the department said Wednesday it’s working with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner to determine next steps.
A spokesperson said VicPD’s freedom-of-information section has updated and enhanced training for teams across the department and noted the officer failed to follow protocols.
“At this time, we do not see a need to introduce any further protocols, as we are addressing both the individual matter and overall awareness appropriately,” added VicPD’s Bowen Osoko in an email.
Saanich police told Black Press Media it respects the decision and the privacy commissioner office’s recommendation to conduct regular training with all employees to ensure a clear understanding of the department’s obligations under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).
“This training is currently under development,” a Saanich police spokesperson said.
The Ministry of Public Safety was asked for comment on the unauthorized use of the PRIME database and said it would provide a statement in the coming days.