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Supreme Court of Canada rules in favour of online privacy

Internet providers barred from disclosing private information without warrant

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that internet providers cannot disclose private information, like names, addresses and phone numbers, to authorities without a warrant, a decision that is being hailed by civil liberties advocates as a significant victory.

The June 13 decision, handed down in the case of R vs Spencer, means that Conservative government measures like Bill C-13, which would provide police with broader internet search powers, and Bill S-4, which would permit an increase in warrantless release of private information by private companies, will likely have to be revisited, The Globe and Mail reports

Matthew David Spencer was convicted of possession of child pornography after authorities obtained subscriber information through Shaw, without a warrant, that helped them find him. Spencer appealed, calling the search unconstitutional and asserting that his rights had been violated, but the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal ruled that he had no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the information police secured.

The Supreme Court found otherwise. “Subscriber information, by tending to link particular kinds of information to identifiable individuals may implicate privacy interests relating to an individual’s identity as the source, possessor or user of that information,” the ruling states. Some degree of anonymity is a feature of much Internet activity and depending on the totality of the circumstances, anonymity may be the foundation of a privacy interest that engages constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure. In this case, the police request to link a given IP address to subscriber information was in effect a request to link a specific person to specific online activities. This sort of request engages the anonymity aspect of the informational privacy interest by attempting to link the suspect with anonymously undertaken online activities, activities which have been recognized in other circumstances as engaging significant privacy interests,” it further states.

But while it found that the police should have had a warrant before obtaining the information on Spencer, it says the charges in the case are serious and upheld the admission of evidence. The court also upheld the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal’s order that Spencer undergo a new trial for making child pornography available to others, the CBC notes.

The federal government asks Canadian telecommunications companies for private customer information an average of 1.2 million times a year, according to documents released in April by the federal privacy commissioner. Those numbers were obtained by the commissioner’s office in 2011 and represent the responses of nine telephone and internet companies that “represent a substantial proportion of Canada’s telecommunications customer connections.”

From those 1.2 million requests, the telecoms handed over private customer information at least 784,756 times. The real number is likely higher, since only three of the nine companies disclosed how many times they had complied with government requests. It’s also unknown how many of those requests were made without warrants.

In March, the House of Commons also learned that the Canada Border Services Agency made 18,849 requests for customer data between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013. Of those, the majority were requests for “basic subscriber information,” and 99 percent of them were provided without warrants. That basic subscriber information includes names, addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses, internet protocol addresses and local service providers.

For more on the issue, check out “The Conservative Surveillance Bill That Will Invade Your Privacy.