K'jupuktuk (Halifax) — On Dec. 3, Nova Scotia's provincial Justice Minister Ross Landry introduced the Missing Persons Act. On Dec. 6 the bill received royal assent, effectively becoming law. That is very fast; too fast for critics who say that the law raises many unanswered questions about how to balance privacy and safety issues.
The Missing Persons Act provides police access to a wide variety of personal records that may assist in locating a missing person. These include cellphone records, text messages, internet-browsing history, GPS information, employment and personal health records, banking records, and so on. And such access to private information is not only limited to the missing person in question; anybody believed to be accompanying the missing person also falls under the scope of the act.
As well, police may enter and search a house, by force if necessary, if a vulnerable missing person is believed to be present.
All this before the police have reason to believe that a crime has been committed.
“This legislation definitely raises privacy concerns,” says Abby Deshman, a lawyer with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “Obviously, in the case of a missing person sometimes it is not feasible to get a warrant and a lower threshold may be justified. But this legislation gives police access to a wide range of records. This is potentially an enormous invasion of privacy based on a very low threshold in terms of evidence.”
To access the information a warrant by a judge or justice of the peace is needed. In the case of a criminal warrant police must bring evidence that a crime was likely committed and the warrant typically pertains to a narrowly defined set of records. When dealing with a missing person none of these constraints apply. To simply demonstrate that the person is missing is good enough.
“This legislation reminds me of the federal Lawful Access Bill, Bill C-30, that allows law enforcement agencies to monitor on-line and wireless information,” says Deshman. “It raises many of the same issues and will require entirely new safeguards.”
Rene Ross, executive director of Stepping Stone, an organization that provides advocacy and supportive programs for sex workers and former sex workers, also finds the act troubling. Sex workers are much more likely to go missing than the average suburbanite.
“I find it disheartening that we were not consulted and I do not understand the rush to push this legislation through law amendments,” says Ross.
Law amendments is the step in the legislative process where citizens can make presentations about a proposed law. Not surprisingly, with only two-days notice between the minster's introduction of the act and its receiving royal ascent, no such presentations took place.
“We recognize that the law is well intentioned, but we have concerns about the privacy of the missing person. If only we would have been asked we could have provided input grounded in the realities of missing and murdered people,” Ross continues. “For instance, we have concerns about how information about a missing person is publicized.”
In Nova Scotia, 1,400 persons are reported missing each year. Whether this new legislation is appropriate in all cases is a fair question. Some of these 1,400 people are abused women who fled to a safe house. Others are people who just wanted to disappear and are at no risk whatsoever.
Whether the new legislation is sufficient is also in doubt. Many of the missing are poor. Many are women. Many are aboriginals. Many are sex workers. Discrimination, poverty and outdated prostitution laws are all contributing causes of why people go missing. The very poor typically don't carry cellphones.
Clearly though, there are missing people who are at grave risk. In these cases, where quick police access to information could help a person be found, the act makes a certain amount of sense.
The issue of missing people in Nova Scotia is complex and warrants a full discussion. Instead, a new law has been proclaimed that gives police a whole new set of powers without substantial controls and without necessarily understanding the consequences.