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Ontario Has Given Its Police Access To People's COVID-19 Test Data

A civil liberties group says the order violates the privacy of Ontarians.

Posted on April 24, 2020, at 4:24 p.m. ET

Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

A paramedic transports an elderly man to the emergency department at a hospital in Toronto.

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A civil liberties organization is raising the alarm after the province of Ontario began sharing COVID-19 test results with police and other organizations.

On April 6, Ontario officials announced that first responders in the province, including police, firefighters, and paramedics, would have access to a database that includes names, addresses, dates of birth, and whether a person had tested positive for COVID-19.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is calling it "an extraordinary invasion of privacy."

In a letter sent to Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, which was cosigned by other advocacy organizations, the CCLA said it was concerned about the legality of the measures.

"We have not found sufficient explanation of how providing this information to first responders, and police in particular, is useful, much less necessary, in responding to the present emergency," the letter said.

Providing personal health information directly to law enforcement is an extraordinary invasion of privacy. Such a measure should only be taken when clearly authorized by law and absolutely necessary given the particular circumstances.

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Abby Deshman, a lawyer and director of the CCLA's criminal justice program, told BuzzFeed News, "Based on what we know about COVID-19 testing in this province, any database of test results will be a very partial picture of who’s carrying COVID-19, and it may also be out of date."

She added, "Personal health information is among the most private information that people have in their lives, and it is usually extremely tightly controlled and only shared with health providers and only with consent and only when absolutely necessary."

Deshman said the solicitor general has not yet replied to the letter, which was sent on Thursday.

A spokesperson for Jones told BuzzFeed News, "First responders put their lives on the line every day to protect Ontarians, and they are at great risk of being directly exposed to COVID-19 as they fulfill their frontline duties. That’s why it’s critical that we protect and support our frontline responders who are fighting to protect us from this virus every day."

The emergency order has a time limit and will expire when Ontario is no longer in a state of emergency.

"Strict protocols are enforced to limit access to this information, and it is used only to allow first responders to take appropriate safety precautions to protect themselves and the communities they serve," the spokesperson said.

Deshman, however, said there are no province-wide measures to ensure information is shared appropriately or to register complaints. She is also concerned about how the information-sharing may impact people of color and people with HIV who have a history of negative interactions with law enforcement.

The letter was cosigned by the CCLA, the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario, the Black Legal Action Centre, and Aboriginal Legal Services.

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