Data entered into national police database accessible to American authorities: WikiLeaks
More than a dozen Canadians have told the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office in Toronto within the past year that they were blocked from entering the United States after their records of mental illness were shared with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
One such woman, Lois Kamenitz of Toronto, contacted the office last fall, after U.S. customs officials at Pearson International Airport prevented her from boarding a flight to Los Angeles on the basis of her suicide attempt four years earlier. As she was going through customs, a Customs and Border Protection officer said while he didn’t have Kamenitz’s medical records, he had a contact note from the police that indicated they had attended her home in 2006. Kamenitz says, “It dawned on me that he was referring to the 911 call my partner made when I attempted suicide.”
Another woman, author Ellen Richardson of Toronto, was denied a flight to New York as part of a cruise trip. She was told by U.S. customs officials at Pearson International Airport in late November, 2013, that because she had been hospitalized for clinical depression in June 2012, she could not enter the U.S. As a result, she missed her flight to New York City and a Caribbean cruise.
Worried about travel
Stanley Stylianos, program manager at the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office, says his organization has heard more than a dozen stories similar to Kamenitz’s.
The office has also received phone calls from numerous Canadians who are worried that their own mental health histories may cause security delays during future trips south of the border.
So far, the RCMP hasn’t provided the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office with clear answers about how or why police records of non-violent mental health incidents are passed to the U.S.
Brad Benson from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says medical records aren’t shared between countries. However, “if you have an arrest record, Canada would share that with us,” he says. “Mental illness is actually a [legal] reason that you may not get admitted,” he says. “The issue is always going to be: could someone be a danger to someone [else]?”
According to diplomatic cables released earlier this year by WikiLeaks, any information entered into the national Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database is accessible to American authorities.
Information on CPIC may contain notes written by officers while apprehending an individual or responding to a 911 call, a person’s criminal record, outstanding warrants, missing persons reports, information about stolen property, information regarding persons of interest, and individuals’ history of mental illness, including suicide attempts, in which police are involved.
In Kamenitz’s case, this could explain how U.S. officials had a record of the police response to the 911 call her partner made in 2006, after Kamenitz took an overdose of pills.
The database contains anything that could alert authorities to a potential threat to public safety and security, and all CPIC information is available to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, RCMP Insp. Denis St. Pierre says. There are a few exceptions, including information regarding young offenders, which is not available to American authorities.
“If a person is a danger to themselves and the police are dealing with that person in another jurisdiction… It’s valuable information, knowing that perhaps this person may harm themselves,” St. Pierre says.
9.6 million records
According to an RCMP website, the CPIC database stores 9.6 million records in its investigative databanks.
The RCMP and U.S. law enforcement agencies provide reciprocal direct access to each other’s criminal databases in order to stem the flow of narcotics and criminal dealings into North America, according to the WikiLeaks cable.
When asked about the sharing of police information for security purposes, Kamenitz says the government is “obviously not considering what the impact of that can be and how much that can alter a person’s life.” Kamenitz notes that suicide isn’t a criminal offence in either country. “It speaks to the myth we still hold,” Kamenitz says, “that people with a mental illness are violent criminals.”
Kamenitz was eventually allowed to board a plane to Los Angeles, four days after missing her initial flight. But in order to do so, she had to submit her medical records to the U.S. and get clearance from a Homeland Security-approved doctor in Toronto, who charged her $250 for the service.
Similarly, Richardson was told she could only enter the U.S. if a doctor from a certain list signed a document vouching for her. She would also have to pay a fee of $500. Unlike Kamenitz, Richardson turned around and went home. Only later did she wonder how the agent knew her history in the first place. Richardson says she has been on several cruises since 2001, all of which required U.S. flights, with no problems. She said, “It really hit me later — that it’s quite stunning they have that information.”
Benson says the response from the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers in Kamenitz’s case was fairly typical. “Now that the note from her doctor is on her records,” he says, “I wouldn’t expect her to have any more problems.”
Included in the Homeland Security forms Kamenitz was required to fill out were questions about whether she had a history of substance abuse and whether she had communicable diseases, such as AIDS or tuberculosis.
“These are private and personal medical records that I’m now handing over to a foreign government,” she says.
Stylianos says Canadians should be outraged that people’s mental health information is shared across the border. “It is an intensely private matter for many individuals,” he says.
‘You can’t control it’
Stylianos says his organization is lobbying for this information not to be included in the CPIC database or shared with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as part of a routine border screening process.
“Once that information gets into the American system, you can’t control it,” he says.
Richardson has hired a lawyer and turned to her member of Parliament, Mike Sullivan, for answers.
Sullivan says the apparent lack of police involvement makes Richardson’s case especially mysterious. While her stay in the hospital was preceded by a 911 call, police were never involved, just an ambulance.
“We don’t know how deep the connection is between U.S. customs” and Canadian authorities, he said.
NDP health critic France Gelinas said she’s been contacted by three people who have been denied entry to the United States based on their personal health history. Gelinas asked Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian to investigate earlier this week.
Cavoukian said she will look into the matter to ensure that personal health information isn’t compromised.
She said such information shouldn’t be shared with anyone outside their health-care providers and doing so undermines the integrity of all health services in Ontario.
“A person’s medical history is something that must remain absolutely confidential,” said Gelinas.
According to the same diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, which included data from 2004 and 2005, Americans believed that despite the open database sharing, “Canada’s strict privacy laws” have limited the timely exchange of information between the two nations.
In the 10 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the two countries have struggled to come to an agreement on how best to police the border.
The administrations of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama are in talks over a perimeter security deal that would include further cross-border intelligence-sharing as part of a joint border security strategy.
In an Aug. 29 news conference in Toronto, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told reporters that the privacy rights of Canadians remain top-of-mind during discussions about cross-border law enforcement programs. “Our sovereignty cannot and will not be compromised,” he said.
This article was written by Staff