Canadians have right to online anonymity, Supreme Court rules

Posted on June 13, 2014 in Governance Policy Context – News/National
Jun. 13 2014.   Sean Fine – Justice Writer

Anonymity is key to Canadians’ right to privacy on the Internet, and as a general rule police are not permitted to disrupt that anonymity by asking Internet companies for information on their consumers without a judge’s authorization, the Supreme Court said in a ruling Friday.

“Anonymity is an important safeguard for privacy interests online,” Justice Thomas Cromwell wrote for a unanimous court.

At issue was whether Canadians have a reasonable expectation of privacy over their “IP address” — a unique number attached to any computer that uses the Internet. If they do, police would need a warrant if, as in this case, they were trying to find someone they believe is sharing images of child pornography online.

Police agencies across the country are watching the case closely. It has implications for the ability of police to probe the Internet for the purpose of fighting crime and terrorism — and for the courts, which some say could be inundated with police requests for warrants if the Supreme Court insists they are necessary. The government says IP addresses are no more revealing than a phone number; civil liberties groups say they are a key that can unlock people’s private uses of the Internet.

Matthew David Spencer of Saskatchewan was charged in the summer of 2007 with possessing child pornography and making it available to others through the file-sharing network known as LimeWire. A Saskatoon police detective found his publicly available child pornography using software easily available to anyone. The detective asked Shaw Communications for the IP address. Shaw identified Mr. Spencer’s sister as the consumer holding the contract, and gave her street address. Saskatoon police then obtained a search warrant which led to Mr. Spencer’s arrest.

The Canadian government argued there is no such expectation of privacy, partly because police can’t force Internet companies to turn over the IP address of a suspect — compliance is voluntary — and partly because agreements between those companies and people who sign up with them allow the companies to turn over IP addresses to the police, without a warrant.

“There is no objective reason to think that an Internet Service Provider must keep such basic information as an address and a name private, let alone shield it from a child pornography investigator,” the government argued, in a brief filed with the court.

The federal government’s Director of Public Prosecutions said that the police were not engaged in any form of electronic surveillance. “The information they received, the name and address of an Internet service subscriber and the location where the Internet had been accessed at one moment in time, was a clue towards identifying an unknown suspect.”

The Ontario Attorney General argued that privacy protection does not start when police are seeking an IP address. “An individual retains protection for intimate details at the point at which police seek to access those details.” It said police make similar requests without a warrant to banks in cases of money laundering, car rental companies in cases of fraud and cell-phone companies in cases of murder, for such information as account numbers, phone numbers and street addresses.

Civil liberties groups and the Privacy Commissioner of Canada intervened in the case, calling it critical to the protection of Canadians’ right to use the Internet without government snooping around without a warrant. “This is a watershed moment for the right to privacy,” the Criminal Lawyers Association said in a brief to the court.

“An Internet Service Provider’s records of its IP address assignments are like a cipher key that unlocks Internet privacy by linking individual subscribers to particular IP addresses on specific occasions. Someone armed with this information can easily learn details of a person’s activities on the Internet, which can be extremely revealing.” They said the police should be required to obtain a warrant from a judge before seeking an IP address.

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2 Responses to “Canadians have right to online anonymity, Supreme Court rules”

  1. Marco Cheng says:

    My internet privacy had never been a serious worry of mine as I grew up with the mentality that I had simply nothing to hide. Not to say that I did not have some embarrassing stories from high school, but there certainly was not anything the government or police would find suspicious. Even so, I agree that police should only get information such as an IP address when they can prove it necessary. People would agree that they would not want just anybody to have potential access to their online personal life, if they do not already believe that nobody should have that right at all.

    While there may be merit to solving crimes where criminals may escape if an IP address is not given, is it really the best way of resolving the issue? I personally know a individual who obsessively believes that the government and the NSA (National Security Agency) is always capable of watching him. This is arguably an effect similar found affecting inmates who were under the surveillance of panopticons, a jailing system where the inmates could not tell if they were being watched 24/7. This article mentioned how the Canadian government argues that there should be no such expectation of privacy, yet is that healthy for society to feel this paranoia?

  2. Online privacy is an important issue that every single Canadian and most people of the world deals with when surfing the web. When we visit a website or Google something, we don’t think about the fact that our every key stroke may be monitored, watched, recorded and then used against us by the government or police. It’s essential to understand that there are organizations that do want to protect our online privacy and maintain our anonymity when using the internet. Because of the new ruling, police are not allowed to ask your internet provider for your personal information which essentially means that everything you do online is private and cannot be investigated unless a search warrant is issued. Julian Assange says Canada is moving in the right direction with this privacy law. It’s frightening and worrisome to think that everything we do online could be tracked and accessed.

    There is another side to this story that we as a society should examine and that is the negative side. This privacy law may protect us and our privacy online but what about online predators? They may hide behind this law so that they can view and possibly distribute child pornography with less fear of being caught. In turn, will this make it more difficult to charge those who are involved in illegal activities on the internet? There are many aspects that need to be looked at before we decide whether we are safer online because of the privacy law.


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