Ontario privacy commissioner looking into charity with ties to Bill Blair
A woman uses her computer keyboard to type while surfing the internet in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, December, 19, 2012. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
OTTAWA -- The Ontario privacy commissioner is looking into a charity that Public Safety Minister Bill Blair helped to establish following allegations that children's personal information wasn't adequately protected online.
"We have opened a file and are working with the (Toronto District School Board) to determine the scope of the privacy issues and what further investigation is warranted," said Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish in a statement to CTVNews.ca.
Blair's office says that the minister has "not had any direct contact with the organization since 2014." The complaint only identifies incidents from the 2018-19 school year.
The charity Merry Go Round Children's Foundation created the program Kids, Cops and Computers in 1998. It gave children computers in exchange for the 12- and 13-year-old students writing blogs and participating in sessions where they were paired with police officers. However, the 85-page formal complaint obtained by CTVNews.ca alleges that that the blogs, some of which are still accessible online, contain personal details about the children that could have put them at risk.
The complaint alleges that through the program, children publicly posted personal details including their name, age, gender, birthdate and religion. They also posted medical information, their school's full name and the city where they live. The complaint also claims the children posted "videos of: themselves in their bedrooms."
As a part of the complaint, the source provided CTVNews.ca with screenshots demonstrating what appears to be students publicly sharing the aforementioned private information.
BLAIR SAYS NO DIRECT INVOLVEMENT
Blair still serves as honorary chair of the organization and, according to his office, "helped establish" it in 1998. His photo is the first image under the "Who We Are" section of the program's website.
However, Blair's office maintains that his involvement was "strictly limited to an Honourary role only."
"At no point has he ever been involved with the administration of the organization or its programs, nor does he has a formal role," said Blair's spokesperson, Marie-Emannuelle Cadieux.
"He has not had any direct contact with the organization since 2014."
In a video from 2014, Blair described the founder of the charity walking into his office to ask if the Toronto police could act as mentors to the program. The meeting between the founder and Blair took place prior to Blair becoming the chief of Toronto police. In the video, Blair says that it was a "great privilege in the Toronto Police Service to have an opportunity to be participants in this program."
The parents allege the program "increased the risk of TDSB students being contacted by sexual predators and human traffickers."
Kids, Cops and Computers has rebranded itself as ComKids. Mark Zwicker, the president & CEO of the organization, said his charity is "aware of the report" but has "not reviewed its contents."
"We are working with our partners at the TDSB and will cooperate fully with any investigation. We are also reviewing our internal processes to confirm these allegations have no merit," said Zwicker in a statement emailed to CTVNews.ca.
Zwicker added that "creating a safe environment for children to learn digital literacy has been a cornerstone" of the program "since its inception."
SOME BLOGS STILL ONLINE
Ryan Bird, a spokesperson for the TDSB, said the school board takes students' privacy "very seriously." He said the students "were instructed to deactivate their blog account" once the assignment was complete, and received reminder emails from the charity.
"It is now clear that some students did not delete their blogs as required by the program," Bird said.
He added that principals of participating schools are now contacting students who took part in the program last year to remind them to delete their blogs, and letters will be sent to the parents to provide more information.
Bird said the TDSB also took the "pro-active step" of referring the issue to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.
The complainant provided examples of 96 incidents in 2018-19 that it says violate the Toronto District School Board's Code of Online Conduct.
The complaint claims that "students that did not post their personal information could not be eligible to receive a 'free...laptop,'" adding that "27 TDSB Teachers directed & counselled students to break TDSB safety rules in order for their students to get a 'free...laptop.'" It also claims that 59 per cent of the participating children live below the poverty line, and some of them were afraid the computers might be taken away from them if they did not share all the information they were told to.
CTVNews.ca was also informed that a second complaint is in the process of being made to the Toronto Catholic District School board.