Allowing access to bank, cellphone records alarms critics

The Alberta government has tabled new legislation to help police find missing people by accessing personal information.

The Missing Persons Act, or Bill 8, would allow police working on a missing-person case to search personal information -such as cellphone and financial records -even when there is no reason to suspect a crime has been committed.

The legislation requires police to apply for the personal information through the courts. When police believe there is a risk of harm or death, they can demand specific records needed to find the missing person.

The bill was introduced by George VanderBurg, MLA for WhitecourtSte. Anne, who said the legislation was primarily created in response to police requests, including a resolution by the Alberta Association Chiefs of Police in spring 2010.

VanderBurg said cases like that of Lyle and Marie McCann, the elderly St. Albert couple who disappeared last July under suspicious circumstances, provide additional impetus for the changes.

“In my constituency, it struck home,” said VanderBurg. “If there was any legislation lacking to make it easier, whether searching bank records or Visa records or phone records, it sure is a lot easier on family members.”

The proposed changes sparked concerns over privacy when mentioned in last week’s throne speech. Opposition MLA Laurie Blakeman said the legislation would give police too much power.

VanderBurg said all information collected by police must be kept separately from other police records and is not to be used for other purposes.

“The bottom line is that the privacy information people have looked at this legislation, they agree with it.”

According to Josh Stewart, a spokesman for Alberta Justice, Information and Privacy Commissioner Frank Work provided verbal feedback after reviewing a first draft of the bill. The ministry is waiting to receive written feedback from Work about the current draft.

A spokesman for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner declined to comment on the current draft until it can be reviewed.

Murray Stooke, deputy chief of the Calgary police, chairs the law amendments committee for the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police that recommended the changes last spring.

Stooke said the bill will go a long way in helping police track down the 200 Albertans currently missing. Since proving a crime is difficult, police were unable to access telephone, bank, or even health records. The prospective legislation will “clarify the rules.”

“In many or most missing person situations, by definition, we don’t have information or evidence of crime,” Stooke said. “This now allows us to take reasonable steps that wouldn’t otherwise be available to us.”

Melanie Alix, whose son disappeared more than two years ago, said she understands some people may have concerns about the release of personal information, but she thinks the legislation’s potential benefits far outweigh any risks.

“I totally understand that this can be a very touchy subject, but I believe in certain cases the police should have access,” said Alix, whose son, Dylan Koshman, disappeared after a fight with his cousin on Oct. 11, 2008, and remains missing.