Criminal record check trend draws privacy warning

Some info searches by employers tap PRIME police database

B.C. Privacy Commisioner Elizabeth Denham is warning both the provincial government and private sector employers are making too much use of criminal record checks.

She issued an investigation report recommending the province limit its use of checks, which are used to vet prospective employees and re-screen some existing staff.

“I’m concerned about the societal trend towards increased employment-related records checks without clear evidence as to their benefit in safeguarding the workplace,” Denham said.

Record checks are important tools in hiring staff who will work with vulnerable adults or children or wield great spending or data-access powers, she said.

But in some cases, she said, government conducts ongoing or multiple criminal record checks on the same employee, adding that shouldn’t happen without a justifiable reason.

Denham also wants the province to report publicly on its use of record checks.

B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director David Eby said the problem is not just criminal record checks but broader police information checks that also pull in data recorded in the PRIME-BC police database.

Most of the B.C. population is in PRIME – often as witnesses, 911 callers or other contacts in a police investigation – and some are recorded as having had “adverse contact” with police.

That designation can spell rejection for a job applicant or prospective tenant who agrees to a request for a police information search, Eby said.

“It’s completely at the discretion of the police and it’s incredibly overused,” Eby said of the “adverse contact” designation in the database.

The box can be checked for someone who was insistent on their rights in dealing with police, he said, or even in cases where someone attempts suicide and their family or friends call police.

“This database was never meant to be used to prevent people from getting apartments or job opportunities,” Eby said. “But it’s become a database for employers, landlords and schools. It’s got this creeping functionality to it that needs to be reined in.”

The over-reliance on checks is also unfortunate in cases where people who do have a criminal past are now trying to change their path, he added.

“Often people have stopped using drugs and are trying to clean up their lives and get back to work,” he said. “They’re being frustrated by this.”

Denham’s report said adverse contact designations are not court-tested and the use of police information checks by employers is much more privacy invasive and difficult to justify in comparison to criminal record checks.

She recommended B.C. public agencies not use police information checks.