BC Police PRIME database and Police record checks

Privacy concerns are snowballing about the collection, use and disclosure of personal information through police databases.

On Wednesday, BC Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham released a report detailing her recent investigation into employment-related criminal record checks by the BC Government. In her report, Denham notes that approximately 85% of the government’s 33,500 employees must submit to a criminal record check. Given the inherently privacy-invasive nature of such checks, she writes, it’s essential that they are carried out only where necessary, and only where it suits the job in question.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the BC Government, these commitments are not being upheld. Denham states that the province’s largest employer collects “more information than is necessary” from prospective and current employees, “unnecessarily conducts multiple checks on some employees,” and regularly contravenes section 26 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in carrying out criminal record checks.

Denham’s report recommends a number of policy changes to correct these imbalances, but also notes, to the Government’s credit, that it doesn’t make use of the far more invasive Police Information check. Much broader in scope than a typical criminal record check, police information checks include a search of BC PRIME (Police Records Information Management Environment), the central database for the province’s local police forces. PRIME logs extensive information on citizen interactions with police, including vaguely defined “adverse” contact.

But where the Government seems to be holding off on these checks, “seldom justifiable under privacy legislation in British Columbia,” private sector employers are digging deeper and deeper into BC PRIME.

A recent report in the Province outlines a number of troubling instances in which improper employer access to PRIME via employee background checks has seriously compromised the well-being of British Columbians. Jose-Luis Guinea, a Peruvian immigrant to Canada, even goes so far as to say his career was ruined by employers accessing PRIME and denying him work on the basis of one “adverse” interaction with police following an argument with paramedics in Richmond.

Critics and watchdogs say that adverse police contact ultimately boils down to subjective officer interpretation, and so should not be used as a basis for flagging citizens as potentially criminal and denying them employment. Commissioner Denham agrees: “I think that is a problem for the citizens of BC and I don’t believe PRIME should be used in an employment setting.”

There is danger for law enforcement as well. If citizens are concerned about how they will be reported on in a police database, they will be less likely to seek out police for assistance or information to avoid the possibility of an “adverse” contact report. This will be doubly true if American authorities are given access to BC PRIME and similar databases.

This new evidence makes the Commissioner’s forthcoming investigation into the use of police databases, announced last year, all the more urgent.

FIPA will continue to track this topic and report on Denham’s findings when they are released.