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BC Privacy Commissioner to consider use of PRIME police database for employment-related criminal record checks

Jurisdiction: - British Columbia

BC's Information and Privacy Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, issued a news release yesterday in which she confirmed that her office:

  • has been examining the issue of employment-related criminal records checks for several months; and 
  • will take the recent concerns voiced by the BC Civil Liberties Association ("BCCLA") about the PRIME police database into consideration.

PRIME stands for "Police Records Information Management Environment".

The Commissioner's release goes on to state:

  • PRIME is a networked database and records management system that all British Columbia police forces use to collect, use and disclose law enforcement information.
  • The database holds a significant amount of sensitive information and may include information about who has called the police, been a victim or a suspect of a crime or charged with an offense.
  • The BCCLA has expressed concerns over the use of this database for pre-employment checks that go beyond checking for criminal convictions, unfairly resulting in lost job opportunities.

For those who may have missed it, the BCCLA posted an article on their website on March 22, 2011 in which they asserted that more than eight out of every ten BC adults are in the PRIME database.

The article, which was picked up by the local media, specifically states that:

  • The BCCLA has discovered that as many as 85% of British Columbia's adult population have "master name records" in the PRIME-BC police database.
  • The most recent annual report for PRIMECorp, the crown corporation that administers the database, indicates that the database has 4,452,165 master name records, and B.C.'s entire population as of October 1, 2010 older than 15 years of age, was estimated by BC Stats to be 3,844,531. Even if as many as a quarter of master name records are duplicates due to aliases, misspellings or out-of-province residence, 86% of the adult population of B.C. would still be recorded in the database.
  • The database is used by police to prepare criminal record checks, including the controversial "negative police contact" section of those checks that can restrict access to jobs or volunteer opportunities.
  • The BCCLA has written the Solicitor General to ask her to investigate. The March 21, 2011 letter can read here.
  • While PRIME-BC was introduced in the Legislature as a way to better combat serial killers, sexual offenders, and career criminals, it would seem that minor traffic violations are enough to land B.C. residents in the police database, indefinitely. 
  • There is little in the way of protocol guiding how entries are made, how long
    information is kept, and the BCCLA frequently receives complaints about incorrect information being impossible to alter.

The BC Solicitor General office's issued this statement to the Vancouver Sun on March 24, 2011 in response to the BCCLA's assertions:

It is wrong to suggest that 85 per cent of British Columbians names are entered into PRIME. In fact, many are multiple calls involving the same people. Names are retained for a minimum of two years, and privacy is maintained through federal and provincial privacy legislation. This is the same privacy standard maintained by other police forces across the country. PRIME is an important tool that is helping us to make big strides in maintaining the safety of communities throughout the province.

The Privacy Commissioner ended her March 25, 2011 release by stating:

"This is a very complex issue involving multiple jurisdictions, multiple data linkages, competing interests and the overlap of at least five different laws," said Denham. "And at the end of the day, we need to be certain that the process is fair and justifiable, both ethically and legally," she said. "In the past, the PRIME database has been considered a highly confidential tool for law enforcement in their daily activities. If PRIME is going to be used increasingly for background checks, citizens will likely demand greater access to it to ensure any information contained therein is accurate."

The commissioner said that her office's examination will include consultations with the Solicitor General, civil society groups, the law enforcement community and other information and privacy commissioners. "This issue is not unique to British Columbia. It's important to involve a broad set of stakeholders in our analysis."