Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Calgary Police Service's failure to protect woman's privacy rights shameful

The distinction between personal and professional lives in the “Big Brother”, hypervigilant era of social media is murky at best. Although technically voluntary, using direct observation techniques and looking over someone’s shoulder to gather information is a gross violation of privacy. But what if your employer, the Calgary Police Service, looked into your private email without your permission? That would be an overreach so egregious as to raise the ire of Alberta’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Most of us might deem such prying egregious. Yet this doesn’t appear to have deterred the Calgary Police Service. And, it seems, neither do privacy commissioners at both levels of government or the provisions of the Canadian Human Rights Act and the PersonalInformation Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).

It seems only logical that those in corrections and law enforcement would understand search warrants and probable cause. It’s also reasonable to expect that they be intimately familiar with the Human Rights Act and with PIPEDA. Few would disagree that these are reasonable expectations, yet the Calgary Police Service, in a story that began in March 2010, defied both of these acts.

According to a report prepared by Alberta’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, rumours began circulating at Calgary police headquarters that a female civilian staffer had bragged about having sex with an officer while at work.

The department’s IT security manager then began monitoring the woman’s office email and found “correspondence of a sexual nature” between the staffer and officer.

While perusing the string of compromising emails, IT staff discovered a message in which the woman had sent her brother-in-law her personal email account name and password. Using these login credentials, the IT manager hacked into the woman’s private home email, where he discovered photos of the woman, topless. The photos were shot in a bathroom cubicle, the tiles of which appeared to match those at police headquarters.

The IT manager copied the incriminating photos, later sharing them with the woman’s supervisor and the police department’s HR consultant. The woman was terminated and later reinstated. She filed a complaint with Alberta’s privacy commissioner.

Privacy adjudicator Amanda Swanek noted that the police had neither the authority nor the need to read her private correspondence. In a letter released April 30, Swanek called the Calgary Police Service’s actions “exceptionally invasive and patently unreasonable”.

In Canada, labour matters generally fall under provincial jurisdiction, but there are also federal laws to help protect personal information. Moreover, the existence of privacy commissioners at both levels of government offers another safeguard. Swanek noted that the woman was neither under criminal investigation nor suspected of leaking information. Therefore, the practice of collecting more information than is necessary for employment or for probable cause could be in violation of multiple federal and provincial privacy acts, including the Human Rights Act or PIPEDA.

One could argue that the woman should have known that her peccadilloes—the compromising or incriminating images she posted online or sent via email—could become part of the public record (see Managing behaviour: Don't grab a boob—or be one—online 24 April 2012). There is no question, however, that those dedicated to protect and proud to serve her failed. They failed to protect her legal and moral right to privacy, and they acted shamefully. Kevin Brookwell, spokesperson for the Calgary Police Service, says the department accepts the adjudicator’s ruling. And so it should: the act of prying—with or without asking—is unconscionable.

No comments:

Post a Comment