Canada has assembled a “Risk-Driven Tracking Database” (RTD) that collates a great deal of information about people who are vulnerable to crime and misfortune, making them known to social service agencies and law enforcement so they can benefit from proactive services.
The benevolent goal of the program is to find at-risk people before they are victimized or harm themselves, but the resulting system has disturbing parallels to the decidedly non-benevolent “social credit system” created by China’s pervasive surveillance state.
Motherboard’s Wednesday report on the RTD implied a bit of journalistic digging was required to suss out the details of the program, saying:
Documents obtained by Motherboard from Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) through an access to information request show that at least two provinces Ontario and Saskatchewan – maintain a “Risk-driven Tracking Database” that is used to amass highly sensitive information about people’s lives. Information in the database includes whether a person uses drugs, has been the victim of an assault, or lives in a “negative neighborhood.”
The Risk-driven Tracking Database (RTD) is part of a collaborative approach to policing called the Hub model that partners cops, school staff, social workers, health care workers, and the provincial government.
Information about people believed to be “at risk” of becoming criminals or victims of harm is shared between civilian agencies and police and is added to the database when a person is being evaluated for a rapid intervention intended to lower their risk levels. Interventions can range from a door knock and a chat to forced hospitalization or arrest.
Data from the RTD is analyzed to identify trends – for example, a spike in drug use in a particular area – with the goal of producing planning data to deploy resources effectively, and create “community profiles” that could accelerate interventions under the Hub model, according to a 2015 Public Safety Canada report.
Officials claim all of this data is “de-identified” by removing personal details such as name and date of birth, although data processing experts were deeply skeptical that would be possible to render such an intricate database completely anonymous. When a database includes over 100 details about a person’s life, removing their name does not ensure anonymity.
The RTD (frequently referred to as “The Hub”) was defended by officials as a compassionate project, but some of its “interventions” are clearly compulsive, such as the involuntary hospitalization mentioned above and interventions performed without consent for children as young as six. In at least one instance reviewed by Motherboard, the person “helped” by the Hub landed in jail.
Officials reportedly have the discretion to decide consent is unnecessary if the subject of their ministrations is “at high risk of harm.” Among the risk factors evaluated by the system is mental health, including “suspected” mental health issues. One of the data sources for evaluating risk levels was Facebook, although some local officials told Motherboard it is no longer used. The privacy guidelines provided to local authorities are merely suggestions they are “strongly encouraged” to follow.
Some of the concerns about the RTD system are common to discussions about massive databases and artificial intelligence systems, which can scan and filter information with such speed and power that it redefines concepts like privacy and consent. A dozen relatively innocuous databases can be fused into a significant threat to privacy by algorithms that can tie the information together in the right way. Or perhaps in the wrong way, as Motherboard quotes concerns about the system making incorrect inferences or misidentifying people.
China’s social credit system was initially touted with benevolent promises comparable to those made for the RTD, but it quickly grew into a surveillance nightmare whose conclusions can deny citizens access to employment, social services, and travel. Subjective mental health criteria such as “suspected” mental illness give the system many tools for designating an individual “problematic,” and the consequences in Canada can already be more severe than a polite knock on the door and cheery offer of assistance.