The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has recently found that an officer at Victoria Police and employees with Saanich Police inappropriately accessed personal information about a Victoria resident.
Stephen Harrison, a Victoria local who does independent police accountability work, has filed a number of Freedom of Information requests with Victoria and Saanich Police. In 2022, he filed a request with the two agencies to see what records the departments had on him.
Some information he was expecting came back in the results, but there was something that shouldn’t have been there.
One Victoria Police Department officer and two employees at Saanich Police looked him up in the Police Records Information Management Environment (PRIME) database, which contains personal information about a person’s interactions with police, including all 911 calls or if they were a witness to a crime.
Police are only supposed to search someone in PRIME if it is for the purpose of an investigation.
When Harrison saw this, he filed complaints with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner about this use of PRIME on at least three occasions. The result?
“In summary and based on the above analysis, your complaint is substantiated because SPD staff contravened section 30 of FIPPA,” the OIPC decision says for the complaint about the two Saanich Police employees.
“It is my finding that the VPD police officer was not authorized to access your personal information on February 9, 2017,” the decision for VicPD says. “As such, I am substantiating your complaint.”
Harrison says he is grateful for the OIPC’s finding, but it is unsettling.
“It certainly can be a bit unsettling that folks with the police agency that have access to people’s personal information are using that and looking folks up when they’re not supposed to,” Harrison said.
In 2019, I filed an FOI for Saanich PD street check data. Two days later, an SPD staff member looked me up in PRIME. One day after they sent me the records, a different employee looked me up. The OIPC found SPD’s access was “not authorized.” pic.twitter.com/5yRP0PECrI
— Stephen Harrison (@step_harrison) June 12, 2023
The OIPC said the departments should conduct regular privacy training for all officers to ensure they know their privacy requirements in handling information through PRIME.
CHEK News requested interviews with both Saanich and Victoria police, both declined but sent email statements instead.
Victoria Police says the officer agreed that accessing the PRIME database to look up Harrison was unauthorized.
“As the report indicates, the OIPC’s remedy is to address the matter with the officer involved, which has been done,” the statement says. “As a further step, we have advised the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner of this matter and are working with them to determine next steps.”
Additionally, VicPD says it had recently re-trained all officers and employees of their obligations under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
“It is clear in the OPIC decision that this is a circumstance where an individual failed to follow our privacy training and protocols,” the statement says. “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.”
Saanich Police says training on the obligations for officers and employees under FIPPA is under development.
“The Saanich Police Department respects the decision of this matter made by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, and its recommendation to conduct regular privacy training with all employees to ensure a clear understanding of our obligations under section 30 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act,” the Saanich Police statement says.
“This training is currently under development.”
Harrison says he doesn’t think training officers is enough, and that more should be done to ensure people’s privacy and data is protected in PRIME.
“I did have a couple of recommendations for ways to keep this from happening again. One would be for officers to have to record reason for any PRIME look at that they do,” Harrison said. “The second piece would be to have an auditor do an audit of such lookups.”
While Harrison says he is glad with the OIPC finding, he wonders how many other people have been looked up in PRIME inappropriately who don’t know because they haven’t filed an FOI.
“I would suspect there’s probably more people like local BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) youth activists or you know, the folks involved in the Bastion square mural project and artwork,” Harrison said.
“That’s where I think some of these lookups would probably be happening as well and things are never going to be caught out. Obviously, that would be inappropriate as well.”
CHEK News reached out to the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, who oversees police in B.C., to ask if any changes to the PRIME database will be implemented following this. A spokesperson for the ministry said it would provide a response “early next week.”