Privacy watchdog slams Toronto police for sharing suicide-attempt reports with U.S.

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
DEPEW, NY - JUNE 05: A U.S. Border Patrol agent checks passenger identifications aboard an Amtrak train from Chicago to New York City on June 5, 2013 in Depew, New York. The agents set up a 24 hour check of transportation hubs in and around Buffalo. They said they received intelligence of undocumented immigrants passing through the area. The Border Patrol also monitors cross along the northern border between the United States and Canada. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Attempting suicide is not a crime either in Canada or the United States. It's considered a mental health emergency and is treated as such.

Suicides or attempts are also generally private. News organizations don't report them unless publicity can't be avoided — in the case of a celebrity, say — or it's an incident that directly affects the public.

So it's disconcerting to learn police forces in Ontario have been sharing data on suicide attempts with U.S. border agents and the FBI via the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC), causing some travellers to be barred from entering the United States.

Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian published a report Monday into her investigation of several cases in which Ontario residents were barred from crossing the border apparently because of their mental-health history.

She specifically cited the Toronto Police Service as having a policy of automatically recording all incidents of suicide in CPIC's Special Interest Police repository, while other police departments do it on a discretionary basis.

Access to CPIC is available to other Canadian law-enforcement agencies, as well as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its border services agents.

The practice of routinely uploading suicide-attempt information violates Ontario privacy legislation, Cavoukian said. The law allows it only in limited circumstances, such as the potential that a suicide attempt could harm others or could provoke a deadly police response (suicide by cop).

The privacy commissioner recommended police stop the practice of automatic uploads and adhere to the privacy law's requirements.

She also recommended an audit of CPIC to identify the offending entries and remove them before them by this Wednesday, as well as a review of specific cases to be completed by mid-July.

[ Related: Canadian woman refused U.S. entry because of depression ]

The commissioner's investigation was prompted by complaints from several people, such as Ellen Richardson. She was stopped from boarding a U.S.-bound flight at Toronto's Pearson International Airport because a check of CPIC by U.S. customs agents turned up the fact she'd been hospitalized for clinical depression in June 2012, CBC News reported.

Richardson had attempted suicide in 2001 by jumping off a bridge, which left her a paraplegic. But she said her mental health has improved thanks to therapy and medication.

She told CBC News the customs agent told her the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act allows people with a physical or mental disorder to be denied entry if they are deemed to pose a threat to property, safety or the welfare of themselves or others.

“I found it so unnerving to think about the embarrassment and humiliation a person would feel,” Cavoukian told reporters, according to CBC News. “I needed to find out exactly how such sensitive and personal info was ending up in the hands of U.S. border officials.”

[ Related: CBSA to share Canadians’ travel data with other federal departments ]

Her investigation turned up 19,000 incidents where "mental health episodes" were entered into the CPIC database.

"The record of a person's suicide attempt is personal health information, that should be protected to the greatest extent possible," said Dr. Peter Voore, medical director at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, according to CBC News.

Toronto police quickly denied it automatically uploads every suicide-attempt call it handles.

Spokesman Mark Pugash told The Canadian Press that officers use their discretion about which reports are put into CPIC. But he added Toronto police believe the information is important for officers to have. If Cavoukian doesn't want it shared with the Americans, then she should take it up with the RCMP, which operates CPIC.

The privacy commissioner's report is limited to Ontario, so it's unclear what policies regarding uploading suicide-attempt reports are used by police forces elsewhere in Canada, including by the RCMP.

And the data-sharing presumably is reciprocal, so Canadian law-enforcement agencies can see reports on suicide attempts by Americans, potentially barring them from entry to Canada if the law here allows it.

Canadian and U.S. police and security agencies already share a wealth of data about cross-border travellers, including criminal records and immigration status.

A recent agreement with the U.S. under the bilateral Beyond the Border Action Plan makes available biographical and other data on each country's residents' movements by July 1 in the name of securing the border and fighting terrorism. CTV News noted that critics consider the plan a massive invasion of privacy.