About the Issue
We all have private spaces and personal information that we care about, whether it’s your banking information, conversations with your doctor, text messages to your sister, images of your body, discussions in the corporate board room, or the contents of the drawer in your bedside table. We choose to let some people into these personal spaces, and exclude others. When we lose control over our personal information and private spaces, it impacts our human dignity and our freedom. On the other hand, law enforcement frequently seek access to these private spaces to collect evidence and investigate crimes, and so a balance must be struck between legitimate public safety objectives and our rights. Traditionally, warrants granted by independent judges have been the primary tool for ensuring that police search powers are used appropriately and reasonably. However, this balance is constantly being challenged by changes in the law and technology. Certain searches—like wiretaps, strip searches and DNA collection—are so invasive that additional protections are necessary, and rapid technological changes are profoundly expanding the amount of information captured about our daily lives. We must be constantly vigilant to ensure that a reasonable balance is maintained, and that privacy protections remain both meaningful and effective.
Why This Matters
The ability for individuals to control access to their personal spaces and information is essential to human dignity. It allows us to decide for ourselves how much of our personal information we share, when to share it, and with whom. Privacy protection allows us to share difficult aspects of our lives with others, work through personal problems, and control when we can be vulnerable. It permits experimentation with individual and creative expression that might otherwise be censored, whether that be pre-emptively by the individual or by a judgmental society. Privacy is also central to a functional democracy. Individuals and societal organizations need protected spaces to explore new ideas, develop new projects, and engage in honest debates about difficult topics. Freedom of the press relies in part on journalists’ ability to protect confidential sources. A fair justice system is premised on lawyers’ ability to have candid, confidential conversations with their clients.
CCLA advocates to protect our constitutional right to be free from arbitrary search and seizure both in the courts and in the public sphere. Whether we are speaking to the press, hosting conferences, publishing reports or appearing before the Supreme Court, privacy is fundamental to our work. We are mindful of the need for government to justify new or expanded search powers, and strive to protect the fragile relationship between privacy and a robust democracy. Our lawyers have appeared in precedent-setting court cases on the constitutionality of warrantless access to IP addresses, cell phone searches, and the law governing the search and seizure of workplace and personal computers. We have vocally objected to proposed laws that would expand police access to anonymous or private online records without sufficient justification or oversight. We also regularly contribute to policy discussions on emerging police technology that has an impact on privacy, including body-worn cameras and facial recognition software.
CCLA’s voice and perspective on policing is respected in government and civil society, and comes with a powerful impact. Numerous precedent-setting court decisions reflect CCLA’s principled positions regarding the intersection of the criminal justice system and privacy. A major component of our work also draws attention to areas of concern that are not yet on the public agenda. For example, our ground-breaking reporting on police record checks has prompted front-page news coverage, national discussion, fundamental policy change and commitments to introduce legislation to rectify concerns raised. This work has already had a major impact, and will continue to affect the lives of thousands across Canada.
Police record checks are being incorporated into hiring and management practices for an increasing number of Canadian organizations, from employers to volunteer managers, educational institutions, licensing bodies and governments. Police forces across the country are running millions of record checks per year, and are disclosing information that goes far beyond convictions and formal findings of guilt. Indeed, a wide range of non-conviction information—including records of suicide attempts, complaints where charges were never laid, withdrawn charges and acquittals—is regularly disclosed through this process. Despite the fact that there is no evidence that links non-conviction records to safety, job or volunteer suitability, individuals with non-conviction records are being excluded from school, denied employment and isolated from their communities on the basis of 911 calls and unproven allegations. Regular disclosure of this information prejudices the presumption of innocence, constitutes a violation of privacy, and can lead to discriminatory decisions. We believe that the time has come for Canadian organizations and governments to seriously address this issue. Canadian law provides only a patchwork of legal regulation and protection. CCLA has created a series of short and long-term recommendations regarding the appropriate use of police record checks. Learn more here.