Canadian Internet and telecom providers have, for many years, disclosed basic subscriber information, including identifiers such as name, address, and IP address, to law enforcement without a warrant. The government has not only supported the practice, but actively encouraged it with legislative proposals designed to grant full civil and criminal immunity for voluntary disclosures of personal information.
Last month, the Supreme Court of Canada struck a blow against warrantless disclosure of subscriber information, ruling that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information and that voluntary disclosures therefore amount to illegal searches.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the decision left little doubt that Internet and telecom providers would need to change their disclosure policies. Last week, Rogers, the country’s largest cable provider, publicly altered its procedures for responding to law enforcement requests by announcing that it will now require a court order or warrant for the disclosure of basic subscriber information to law enforcement in all instances except for life threatening emergencies (warrantless disclosures may still occur where legislation provides the lawful authority to do so). Telus advised that it has adopted a similar approach.
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The Supreme Court of Canada’s Spencer decision is still only a few days old, but it has become clear that the ruling has left the government’s privacy and lawful access strategy in tatters. I’ve posted earlier on how the decision – which held that Canadians have reasonable expectation of privacy in their subscriber information and that voluntary disclosure of such information to the police constitutes an unlawful search – blows away the government’s plans for Bills C-13 and S-4 by contradicting longstanding government policy positions.
While there are options for the government to establish reforms that are consistent with the court ruling and that would grant police the access they say they need, government ministers have instead adopted a rather bizarre response of saying anything, no matter how inconsistent with prior positions, the court’s analysis, or public comments from authorities such as the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. There is admittedly a track record for this: Conservatives have dismissed privacy concerns from Carole Todd, the Boys and Girls Club of Canada, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, and many more. Further, the Conservative leader in the Senate claims Spencer has “no impact whatsoever” on Bill S-4.
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Justice Minister Peter MacKay appeared last week before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights and was asked once again about the inclusion in Bill C-13 of an immunity provision for intermediaries for the voluntary disclosure of personal information. MacKay again suggested that warrants would be required for disclosure, yet this is simply inaccurate. The exchange:
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The debate on Bill C-13 opened yesterday in the House of Commons with opposition MPs calling on the government to split the bill into two (cyberbullying and lawful access) and raising concerns about the voluntary disclosure provision that would give Internet providers complete criminal and civil immunity for voluntary retention and disclosure of subscriber information. When asked about the issue, Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the following:
The provision would clarify that the police officer can lawfully ask – and he points out – that individuals and groups voluntarily preserve data or provide documentation, but only when no prohibition exists against doing so. That is to suggest that organizations would still be bound by the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, something known as PIPEDA, which makes it clear that an organization is entitled to voluntarily disclose personal information to the police, without the consent of the person to have the information relayed.
However police have to have lawful authority to do so. They still have to obtain a warrant. They can ask that the information be preserved and temporarily put on hold so that it cannot be deleted, but in order for police to access that information that is frozen, they must still obtain a warrant. There is no warrantless access.
Unfortunately, MacKay is wrong.
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When the government announced earlier this year that its controversial lawful access legislation was dead, many suspected that the bill – which has resurfaced numerous times over the past decade – would be back sooner or later. Peter MacKay, the newly installed Justice Minister, recently suggested that it may be […]
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