RCMP's secret files questioned
Data improperly held, privacy watchdog says
February 14, 2008

Ottawa Bureau Chief

OTTAWA–The RCMP is improperly holding "tens of thousands" of secret records containing sensitive information about Canadians, the country's privacy watchdog has found.

Jennifer Stoddart issued a special report to Parliament yesterday to flag "disturbing" problems with two databases the RCMP uses to track information on criminal intelligence and national security.

"Canadians should be concerned a great deal about this situation. This is one of most fundamental rights – access to personal information that is collected by the government and its agencies," Stoddart said.

But an audit by her office found there was no valid reason for the blanket of secrecy in more than half of the files examined.

"It's illegal, if the force has no justification," Stoddart said.

The so-called "exempt" data banks allow federal institutions, such as the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, to keep information off-limits from public scrutiny and from access-to-information requests.

"They contain documents Canadians can't access or even know about," Stoddart said. But at a news conference, she said these secret files – information shared with other police forces – could have broad implications for Canadians.

Being named in one of these files could have a harmful impact, she said, citing the case of someone applying for a security clearance for a job or someone trying to cross the border. And because the information is off-limits, it would be impossible for an individual to ever find out what had caused the problem.

Even more troubling was that the RCMP had already removed thousands of records after its own audit of the exempt files and yet Stoddart says her office still found thousands more files improperly classified.

"We were still able to find many files that did not belong," Stoddart said, calling a signal of "significant weaknesses" in the RCMP's oversight of information privacy.

The RCMP announced immediately that it had accepted Stoddart's findings and that the force was making changes to improve the management of the two data banks.