The trial of an accused trader in child pornography has brought the question of warrantless disclosure of ISP subscriber information to the national media's attention. It is understood to be the first time a superior court will consider whether basic subscriber information disclosed by an ISP without a warrant violates the Charter. The decision on this question is expected tomorrow. Stay tuned ...
The National Post, the Globe & Mail and the Toronto Sun discuss the issue:
The Globe & Mail - Wednesday, April 09
A precedent on Internet privacy in the making
An Ontario Superior Court judge may rule as early as tomorrow in a precedent-setting Internet privacy case that could significantly set back how police conduct probes into online child pornography.
At issue is basic "subscriber information" from an Internet service provider, or ISP, which in this particular case was obtained under search warrant by Toronto police in an investigation that ultimately saw Robert Norman Smith, a Toronto actor once featured in popular Alexander Keith's beer commercials, charged with two counts of possessing child pornography and one of making it available.
Mr. Smith, 41, has pleaded not guilty.
But because the decision will be a first for superior courts in Canada, and because such decisions are binding upon the lower courts, the ruling will have broad impact.
Usually, police are able to obtain subscriber information - this is the customer's name and address - from Internet providers with what's called a simple "law enforcement request" made under the federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, commonly called PIPEDA.
While this legislation, which was phased in over several years beginning in 2000, sharply restricts the use and dissemination of personal information in commercial contexts, it also explicitly allows for the disclosure of customer name-and-address information to police.
But in this case, the provider, Bell Canada, refused to hand over the subscriber information, so the police resorted to getting it with a judicially approved search warrant.
On the first full day of trial yesterday before Superior Court Justice Robert Clark, Mr. Smith's lawyer, Cindy Wasser, argued that "people must have the expectation of privacy in their Internet use and they must have the right to challenge" search warrants that force ISPs to hand over their names and addresses to police.
"You can't just say this case is about child pornography," Ms. Wasser told the judge. "It's about the Internet and how we all use it and our expectation of privacy."
She is seeking legal standing for Mr. Smith to challenge the warrant; only if successful will she actually be able to challenge the validity of the warrant itself.
But if Judge Clark agrees that Mr. Smith had a reasonable expectation of privacy and grants him standing, it would mean police forces across the country, who daily obtain subscriber information under PIPEDA requests, would have to revert to the old, labour-intensive system of seeking search warrants every time they want customer information from ISPs.
Additionally, search warrants are problematic for police probing Internet crimes simply because they are more time-consuming.
Crown prosecutor Allison Dellandrea argued that because every Internet user automatically "broadcasts his IP [Internet protocol] address to potentially millions of people" every time he signs on, and because ISPs typically warn users in service agreements that their identities may be disclosed, there can be no expectation of privacy.
Furthermore, Ms. Dellandrea said that just because a commercial enterprise, such as Bell or another ISP, or even the drafters of PIPEDA, deem a block of information to be "private" doesn't mean it is private in a Charter-protected sense.
"That's quite different from what the Constitution says is privacy deserving of protection," she said.
Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects people from unreasonable search and seizure, but defines privacy as "a biographical core of personal information" that tends to reveal "intimate details of the lifestyle and personal choices of the individual." Only then is the Charter protection engaged.
What was disclosed by Bell Canada to police in Mr. Smith's case was simply his name and address, information that is often readily available online or from phone books.
But Ms. Wasser argued that in combination with what the police already had learned from their investigation about his alleged use of child pornography, that minimal information was neither as benign nor innocuous as it seemed.
She urged the judge to consider not only what information the police received, but how they used it.
The Toronto investigation began in the fall of 2005, with police developing a system of searching that allowed them to view IP addresses of people sharing or making available certain child-pornography files.
Using a publicly available database, investigators were then able to determine which providers owned the IP addresses.
On Nov. 22, under one search warrant, they got the name and address information from Bell that led them to Mr. Smith, and in February the next year, under another warrant, they conducted a search of his north Toronto home.
At the time of his arrest that day, police alleged they found on his computer more than 1,000 electronic files, including movies and pictures, of children as young as 1 engaged in sexual activity.
Judge Clark said he may have a decision by tomorrow, but that the case will go ahead regardless.
From the National Post:
Television beer pitchman at centre of pornography, privacy battle
Shannon Kari, National Post
Published: Wednesday, April 09, 2008
The trial of a former television pitchman could be a precedent-setting case in deciding the privacy rights of Internet subscribers who are the subject of a criminal investigation.
Robert Smith is on trial in Ontario Superior Court on one charge of possession of child pornography and one charge of making child pornography available.
The actor was featured in commercials for Alexander Keith's beer as a character with a thick Scottish accent, until his arrest in February 2006.
Toronto police arrested Mr. Smith after an investigation into distribution of child pornography on Internet-based file sharing networks.
After discovering a specific Internet protocol address and learning it belonged to a Bell Canada customer, police executed a search warrant to obtain the subscriber information from the Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Mr. Smith is arguing there were not reasonable grounds for the first warrant to be issued or for a second one to be executed at his home.
The Crown responded that Mr. Smith has no right to challenge the warrant executed against Bell because there are no privacy rights in Internet subscriber information.
In a 2005 civil case about the downloading of music from file-sharing networks, the Federal Court of Appeal found there were privacy rights in this data and they could not be disclosed without a court order.
The prosecution of Mr. Smith is believed to be the first time a Superior Court in Canada has been asked to decide whether police are required to obtain a search warrant to get subscriber information in a criminal case and whether a defendant can challenge the warrant.
Some Internet providers voluntarily disclose this information to police in child pornography cases, but not in other criminal investigations.
A provincial court judge in Ontario ruled earlier this year that there are privacy rights in subscriber information, which includes the name, address, account and e-mail address of a customer (the Crown has appealed this ruling).
Crown attorney Allison Dellandrea argued yesterday it is simply "customer information" that police are seeking. "It doesn't matter what police do with it," said Ms. Dellandrea.
When police have subscriber information and an IP address, they can find "deeply personal" data related to an individual's Internet use and it should be possible to challenge whether the warrant was obtained lawfully, argued defence lawyer Cindy Wasser.
"You can't just say this case is about child pornography. This case is about the Internet, how we use it and the expectation of privacy," said Ms. Wasser.
From the Toronto Sun:
TorontoSun.com - Toronto And GTA- Actor disputes warrant in porn case
The Toronto comic actor who once portrayed the fanatical Scot in the Alexander Keith's beer commercials has launched an unprecedented constitutional challenge of the search warrant that led to his child porn charges.
Lawyer Cindy Wasser, who represents actor Robert Norman Smith, argued yesterday that her client's privacy rights were violated when his Internet service provider, Bell Canada, gave his name and address to Toronto Police when they presented a search warrant.
Internet users have an expectation of privacy and they don't have to list their names or addresses, Wasser said.
It is be -lieved to be the first Ontario Superior Court challenge of a warrant in which a service provider gave a subscriber's name and address.
Justice Robert Clark may give a ruling as early as tomorrow in the judge-alone trial.
The judge appeared to disagree with Wasser, saying, "The nature of the information is pivotal here. You're not discovering biographical information. You're getting the most minimal information, the person's identity and address."
Clark said he was balancing the accused's privacy rights versus "effective law enforcement."
Crown attorney Allison Dellandrea said the information provided "isn't deserving of constitutional protection."
Smith, 42, was charged with two counts of possession of child pornography and one count of making available child pornography after police searched his home computer two years ago.
He lost his job as soon as he was charged and the popular ads were pulled off the air.