B.C.'s police database PRIME under
scrutiny for use by prospective employers

Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun, 08.11.2012

BC Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham investigates PRIME BC

BC Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham speaks at the 12th Annual
Privacy and Security Conference at the Victoria Conference Centre in
Victoria, B.C. Denham recently completed an investigation that found B.C.
government criminal checks into its workers was too broad.
(Darren Stone, Victoria Times-Colonist)

The province’s privacy watchdog has expanded its examination of criminal record checks done by prospective employers to include those in the private sector.

Privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham recently completed an investigation that found B.C. government criminal checks into its workers was too broad.

“I actually have a greater concern in the fact that some private sector employers are requiring what’s called police information checks which are distinct from criminal records checks,” said Denham this week.

Denham is concerned about PRIME BC (Police Records Management System), a common database shared by all police agencies in the province that started as a pilot project in 2001 and expanded to include the province’s 13 independent police forces and 110 RCMP detachments by April 2008.

Unlike a criminal record check, which only indicates whether a person was charged with a crime or convicted, a police check using PRIME BC will also indicate whether a person has had “negative contact” with police.

The database of 5.4 million names draws that information from reports of stolen cars and break-ins, as well as details of phone calls from the public to report suspicious activities and low-level encounters with police, such as in a neighbourhood dispute. A “negative” flag is added by police if they feel it is needed.

“It’s subjective, it’s information entered into the system by a police officer and hasn’t been subject to judicial confirmation or scrutiny,” argues Denham.

“My point is that [PRIME BC] is legitimate and appropriate for a law enforcement purpose, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to access or require access to that kind of information in the employment realm. I view that as function creep — the creation of a database for one purpose and the use of that database for a different, unrelated purpose,” she added.

Earlier this year, Denham told ICBC it could not use facial recognition to identify Stanley Cup rioters without a court order because the photos were meant to help identify drivers.

Denham said she’s not considering a deeper look at PRIME BC, but added it might be needed.

“I think that people who say, ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,’ are actually missing the point because there is value in a society in being able to move about anonymously,” said Denham. “And also I think privacy rights are foundational to other rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.”

PRIME BC is a powerful tool, say police in B.C. The intention when it was set up was to break down barriers between police forces so information could be shared instantly to help catch crooks. Officers can enter and access reports on laptops in their cars, technology not available decades ago when similar reports were stored on paper index cards.

In it’s 2009-10 annual report, PRIMECorp., the Crown corporation that manages the database, noted the Vancouver police nabbed a 2009 murder suspect in a few days using reports available on the database. Although two witnesses only knew the first name of the suspect, a query on PRIME BC found a report of the murder victim as a witness to a missing person with the same first name as the suspect. The murder suspect was then identified in a photo lineup, and later arrested and traces of the victim’s blood found on clothes.

Other examples where PRIME BC was used included a car theft that spanned three police jurisdictions, and the arrest of a man in Kamloops who was found to have an alias entered by Surrey RCMP showing he was wanted for assault.

Abbotsford police Const. Ian MacDonald noted that a negative-contact-with-police result would only be produced for an employment check in the PRIME BC database for a person with a “chargeable” offence.

The person may not have been charged, for example, because the victim declined to go through a court proceeding, he noted.

While MacDonald said he understands the privacy concerns surrounding the database and the police information’s use for employment checks, he stressed both provide a valuable service.

“Do we want it to be absolute privacy to everybody? And nobody can have anybody’s record? Or do we want to say there has to be a balance in between?” said MacDonald.

He noted Facebook probably has more information on people, provided voluntarily, than the police.

“I would not be the person to argue the police department has to decide that [balance]. But I think one way or another — whether it’s politicians or people directly — we have to decide as a society what we are prepared to tolerate,” said MacDonald.

If people want to know what information the police has collected on them, they can ask for an employment check themselves to see what it says. But to get all information police have collected, a person has to make a freedom of information request.

There may be a circumstance where the police would change a negative flag on someone in the PRIME database, but it is rare because the negative flag would have to have been substantiated, said MacDonald.

Other police agencies were reluctant to discuss PRIME BC.

Both the Vancouver police and the RCMP would not provide anyone to discuss the use of PRIME BC and its privacy concerns, referring questions to PRIMECorp. PRIMECorp. manager Russell Sanderson said he couldn’t say how individual police agencies provide information on employment checks because it is under the control of the individual agencies.

PRIME BC is just one example of the tools — which also include the use of automatic licence plate recognition — which are pushing the province into a surveillance state, says Micheal Vonn, policy director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. She said people who complain to them about PRIME are often “stunned” to find out their name is in the database.

Vonn is concerned about the 5.4 million names on the database, but also that information that has not been tested in court is being shared with employers.

“Unless we insist on appropriate civilian oversight, we are going to see these technologies simply run amok by police and intelligence in Canada,” she said.

B.C. police use false info to smear people in an operation run
by Russell Sanderson, a proven liar and disgraced ex-cop
Nothing’s changed as lying ex-cop Russell Sanderson
and PRIME-BC continue to smear British Columbians
A North Vancouver father takes the RCMP to court
after Mountie mudslingers refuse to stop smearing
his daughter on PRIME-BC
B.C. Crown corporation/cop defamation database PRIMECorp
smeared a Richmond volunteer because he reported a crime
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