Right of privacy about internet usage.

Disclosure of online identity if breach of right of privacy:

Right of privacy is statutorily recognised in Canada. Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, 2000 bars disclosure of personal information except in cases excepted under section 7(3) of said Act.

Breach of right of privacy:

The police identified the Internet Protocol (IP) address of a computer that someone had been using to access and store child pornography through an Internet file-sharing program. They then obtained from the Internet Service Provider (ISP), without prior judicial authorization, the subscriber information associated with that IP address. This led them to the appellant, Mr. Spencer. He had downloaded child pornography into a folder that was accessible to other Internet users using the same file-sharing program. He was charged and convicted at trial of possession of child pornography and acquitted on a charge of making it available.

Det. Sgt. Darren Parisien (then Cst.) of the Saskatoon Police Service, by using publicly available software, searched for anyone sharing child pornography. He could access whatever another user of the software had in his or her shared folder. In other words, he could “see” what other users of the file sharing software could “see”. He could also obtain two numbers related to a given user: the IP address that corresponds to the particular Internet connection through which a computer accesses the Internet at the time and the globally unique identifier (GUID) number assigned to each computer using particular software. The IP address of the computer from which shared material is obtained is displayed as part of the file-sharing process. To connect the computer usage to a location and potentially a person, investigators made a written “law enforcement request” to Shaw for the subscriber information including the name, address and telephone number of the customer using that IP address. The request, which was purportedly made pursuant to s. 7(3) (c.1)(ii) of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, S.C. 2000, c. 5 (PIPEDA ), indicated that police were investigating an offence under the Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46 , pertaining to child pornography and the Internet and that the subscriber information was being sought as part of an ongoing investigation. Investigators did not have or try to obtain a production order (i.e. the equivalent of a search warrant in this context).

Whether request to disclose identity of IP user was a search?

When defining the subject matter of a search, courts have looked not only at the nature of the precise information sought, but also at the nature of the information that it reveals. In this case, the subject matter of the search was not simply a name and address of someone in a contractual relationship with the ISP. Rather, it was the identity of an Internet subscriber which corresponded to particular Internet usage. The nature of the privacy interest engaged by the state conduct turns on the privacy of the area or the thing being searched and the impact of the search on its target, not the legal or illegal nature of the items sought. In this case, the primary concern is with informational privacy. Informational privacy is often equated with secrecy or confidentiality, and also includes the related but wider notion of control over, access to and use of information. However, particularly important in the context of Internet usage is the understanding of privacy as anonymity. The identity of a person linked to their use of the Internet must be recognized as giving rise to a privacy interest beyond that inherent in the person’s name, address and telephone number found in the subscriber information. 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. 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. Whether the search in this case was lawful will be dependent on whether the search was authorized by law. Neither s. 487.014(1) of the Criminal Code , nor PIPEDA creates any police search and seizure powers. Section 487.014(1) is a declaratory provision that confirms the existing common law powers of police officers to make enquiries. PIPEDA is a statute whose purpose is to increase the protection of personal information. Since in the circumstances of this case the police do not have the power to conduct a search for subscriber information in the absence of exigent circumstances or a reasonable law, the police do not gain a new search power through the combination of a declaratory provision and a provision enacted to promote the protection of personal information. The conduct of the search in this case therefore violated the Charter . Without the subscriber information obtained by the police, the warrant could not have been obtained. It follows that if that information is excluded from consideration as it must be because it was unconstitutionally obtained, there were not adequate grounds to sustain the issuance of the warrant and the search of the residence was therefore unlawful and violated the Charter . The police, however, were acting by what they reasonably thought were lawful means to pursue an important law enforcement purpose. The nature of the police conduct in this case would not tend to bring the administration of justice into disrepute. While the impact of the Charter ‑infringing conduct on the Charter protected interests of the accused weighs in favour of excluding the evidence, the offences here are serious. Society has a strong interest in the adjudication of the case and also in ensuring the justice system remains above reproach in its treatment of those charged with these serious offences. Balancing the three factors, the exclusion of the evidence rather than its admission would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. The admission of the evidence is therefore upheld. R v. Spencer, 2014 SCC 43. (Supreme Court of Canada) Note: Reference to ‘Charter’ means Constitution Act of 1982 of Canada.


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