Saturday, August 29, 2015

Canadian Police Chiefs looking to resurrect warrant-less access to telecom users' data

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, at their annual conference, just passed a resolution looking to resurrect the lawful access debate following R. v. Spencer.

I find it puzzling. They are looking for warrantless access to customer data (which they call BSI, or basic subscriber information) where there is no expectation of privacy, while the Supreme Court of Canada said that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in basic subscriber information. Their resolution (reproduced below), refers to recent caselaw that follows old pre-Spencer decisions that say there is no expectation of privacy in customer name and address connected to a telephone number. The resolution also refers to options being considered by a federal, provincial and territorial cybercrime working group to provide warrantless access to BSI.

Let me get this straight: they want warrantless access to BSI where there is no expectation of privacy, while the Supreme Court has said there is an expectation of privacy in BSI. So what's left of the categories of BSI where there is no expectation of privacy?

A few things are clear to me, which make this resolution and the apparent efforts to circumvent the warrant process very problematic.

  • The Supreme Court said there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in BSI, at least in the internet context;
  • The CACP and law enforcement generally have consistently said -- contrary to what the Court found in Spencer -- that there is never an expectation of privacy in BSI;
  • You can't trust law enforcement to determine whether an expectation of privacy exists.

I recognize that BSI is often critical to investigations, but it can't be a free for all where the police get access to it without an impartial judicial officer determining, on sworn evidence, that the balance between privacy and public safety is in favour of public safety. The inexorable conclusion is that the only solution to this is to make the warrant and production order process more efficient and streamlined.

Justin Ling did a great article on this for the CBA's National Magazine: National | Accessing subscriber data: Working around the Spencer ruling.

Resolution #03 - 2015


Submitted by the E-Crimes Committee

WHEREAS law enforcement requires real-time, or near real-time access to basic subscriber (customer name and address) information (BSI) as it relates to telecommunications’ customers for investigative reasons, and;

WHEREAS the Supreme Court of Canada, in their majority decision in R. v Spencer, 2014 SCC 43, did state that:

  • a reasonable expectation of privacy exists in the identity of an internet subscriber where there is an ability to link that identity to specific online activity;

  • 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;

  • absent an exigent circumstance, or authority from a reasonable law, such as authority from a judicial warrant or order, police do not have the power to conduct a search for basic subscriber information (BSI) when there exists a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information, and;

WHEREAS since the Spencer decision, the telecommunications companies refuse to provide any basic subscriber information (BSI) in the absence of an exigent circumstance, or a judicial warrant or order, even where there exists no reasonable expectation of privacy, and;

WHEREAS there exists no lawful authority designed specifically to require the provision of basic subscriber information, and the problems posed by this gap in the law are particularly acute where there exists no reasonable expectation of privacy in that information.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police supports the creation of a reasonable law designed to specifically provide law enforcement the ability to obtain, in real-time or near real-time, basic subscriber information (BSI) from telecommunications providers.



In June 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a decision in the case of R v. Spencer - identifying that subscriber information that allows for the linking of the identity of a person with specific online activity in the context of a criminal investigation engages a high level of informational privacy. However, telecommunications and other service providers (e.g. financial institutions, rental companies) have interpreted the court's findings more broadly, and now demand judicial authorization (based on a reasonable grounds to believe threshold) for nearly all types of government requests for basic identifying information, extending beyond instances involving a person's substantive Internet activity.

The impact of the Spencer ruling and the broader response by telecommunications and other service providers is having a significant impact on law enforcement and criminal investigations. Basic identifying information is often required at the onset of an investigation where technology plays a role, but the judicial threshold required to obtain warrants and general production orders to access basic identifying information is difficult, and often impossible, to satisfy when an investigation is in its early stages.

Moreover, the impact of the Spencer ruling has caused substantial resource and workload challenges for law enforcement. For example, prior to the Spencer ruling, law enforcement agencies would generally complete a voluntary request to telecommunications service providers for basic identifying information in under an hour, and receive a response from service providers within the same day. Following the Spencer ruling, accessing the same information now often requires ten to twenty times the amount of administrative work and documentation, days of preparation to seek judicial authorization, and responses from service providers can take upwards of one month - sometimes exceeding a service provider's data retention schedule for the same information (meaning the information is no longer available).

Criminal investigations impacted by the Spencer ruling are now often delayed and in some cases, not pursued, due to judicial authorization or resource challenges. This impact applies to a range of investigative work, such as cases involving suspected online child sexual exploitation and abuse, fraud and other financially-motivated crimes, organized crime, requests for international law enforcement assistance, and national security matters involving suspected extremism and other threats to Canada - all of which may require basic identifying information from a telecommunications or other service provider to identify potential evidence for criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Transparency Guidelines

Transparency Reporting Guidelines were prepared by Industry Canada, in consultation with RCMP and other relevant Government of Canada partners, to help private organizations be open with their customers, regarding the management and sharing of their personal information with government, while respecting the work of law enforcement, national security agencies, and regulatory authorities. Specifically, the Guidelines cover categories of disclosures for reporting purposes and limitations to consider when reporting statistics. Of note, the Guidelines specify that there should be a six month delay in reporting timeframe to ensure that most active investigations have no possibility of being compromised. On June 30, 2015, the Transparency Reporting Guidelines were published on Industry Canada’s website:

Coordinating Committee of Senior Officials

Recently, a discussion paper, led by Justice, was presented to the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Coordinating Committee of Senior Officials, Cybercrime Working Group. The paper focuses on the impact of Spencer and legislative reform considerations.

Option 1: Create an administrative (non-judicial) scheme for access to Basic Subscriber Information (BSI).

Option 2: Create a new judicial order (production order) for basic subscriber information and/or add BSI to existing production orders.

Option 3: Create a specific production order for some types of basic subscriber information with a greater expectation of privacy, and create a specific administrative (non-judicial) authority for access to other types of basic subscriber information.

Recent Case Law

  • Since the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in R. v. Spencer in June 2014, case law has started to emerge that applies the analysis in Spencer to other cases involving police requests for BSI.

  • The majority of relevant cases thus far are from Ontario and involve requests for BSI associated to a phone number. The cases have generally found that the privacy interests in BSI associated to a phone number are not the same as the privacy interests in BSI linked to an IP address, and distinguish Spencer on that basis. As such, the Ontario decisions have upheld warrantless requests for BSI associated to phone numbers as they found in the circumstances of each case that there was no expectation of privacy in such information. See: R. v. Morrison (unreported, Ontario Court of Justice, Reasons released on December 17, 2014); R. v. Khan (2014 ONSC 5664); R. v. Latiff (2015 ONSC 1580); R. v. Nurse and Plummer (2014 ONSC 6004).

  • The issue of whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in BSI associated to a phone number has also emerged in the context of transmission data recorders warrants (TDRW). These warrants provide judicial authorization to record incoming and outgoing dialed phone numbers. In Ontario, police/Crowns have argued before the Superior Court of Justice that an assistance order is the proper authorization to obtain in conjunction with a TDRW to compel a service provider to provide the BSI associated with the dialed numbers. However, Telus has argued that due to the privacy interests in BSI, as found in Spencer, a general warrant is the proper authorization. Nordheimer J. agreed with the police/Crown and held that Spencer was a decision dealing with the Internet and it did not find that there is always a reasonable expectation of privacy in BSI, but rather it will depend on the circumstances of each case. This is a very recent decision (June 19, 2015), and it will be interesting to see if other jurisdictions follow this reasoning. See H.M.Q. v. TELUS Communications Company, 2015 ONSC 3964.


Action Plan

The CACP Law Amendments Committee will work with the E Crime Committee to develop new legislation that supports the creation of a reasonable law designed to specifically provide law enforcement the ability to obtain, in real-time or near real-time, BSI from telecommunications providers.

The Committee will keep abreast of the ongoing work of the F/P/T Coordinating Committee of Senior Officials, Cyber crime Working Group who is leading the policy development of legislative reform considerations; next meeting schedule in November, 2015.

Requirement to develop an overall government-wide approach to ensure law does not run counter to government objectives or would require major modifications in the future.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Nova Scotia's Cyber-safety Act (hopefully) heading for a Charter challenge

A case I am involved with is hopefully heading to argument on Friday in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia on whether the province's Cyber-safety Act goes too far in infringing Charter protected speech. There has been a lot of interest in the statute since the former NDP government jammed it through the legislature in the wake of the tragic death of Rehtaeh Parsons. It's my opinion that rather than address a dramatic failing on the part of the police and prosecution service (which the government would have to admit occurred on its watch), the government pulled out the old "there wasn't a law! we need a new law!". The result was a hastily assembled statute, which is more fully described elsewhere on this blog.

The case has been bifurcated, so that on Friday there will be a decision on whether, in the view of the judge, my client should be subject to a "cybersafety protection order" under the Act. Depending on the outcome of that decision, we will argue that the Court should consider the Charter and our arguments that the Cyber-safety Act violates Section 2(b) of the Charter and cannot be saved by Section 1 as a reasonable limitation on freedom of expression. But even if the judge determines that he does not have to consider the Charter, I am sure that this dumpster fire of a statute will face Charter scrutiny sometime soon.

The Halifax Chronicle Herald did a big piece on the story (much larger than I had expected) in the weekend edition of the paper and there's been a lot of other media attention as well, including this interview on CTV Atlantic which summarizes my view.

Here's the Herald article:

Lawyer set to launch charter case against law inspired by Rehtaeh Parsons | The Chronicle Herald

A law inspired by the death of Rehtaeh Parsons could face its first court challenge next week when a Halifax lawyer will attempt to argue it violates charter rights regarding freedom of expression.

The Cyber-safety Act was brought in by the former NDP government in response to a wave of public criticism of the way Rehtaeh’s case was handled. The 17-year-old girl died after attempting suicide in 2013. She accused several boys of raping her while she was drunk and a photo of the alleged sexual assault was widely circulated among her peers.

Within weeks of Rehtaeh’s death, former justice minister Ross Landry was in a Halifax high school unveiling the new legislation. Critics, Halifax lawyer and privacy expert David Fraser being one of the most vocal, say the government’s actions were too fast, too sweeping and did not consider the full implications of such a bill.

Cyberbullying is a real problem, said Fraser, but his argument goes beyond that.

“The issue is, how do you define it and how do you define it in a way that takes into account the fact that people should have freedom of expression to, particularly, speak about matters of public interest?” said the partner with McInnes Cooper.

On Friday, Fraser and his client, Robert Snell, will learn from a judge whether Snell did in fact cyberbully a former business partner as defined by the province’s Cyber-safety Act. Snell had a protection order placed on him by the courts as a result of statements he made online. The order prevents Snell from communicating with Giles Crouch or discussing their disagreement.

Following the judge’s decision, Fraser hopes he will be able to begin arguing that the law breaches Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The two issues were split following an argument from the attorney general. The government’s view is if the judge finds Snell’s actions were not cyberbullying, there is no reason to address the charter aspect.

Regardless, Fraser is going to court prepared to begin the charter fight.

Laws need to be more nuanced when they approach values protected by the charter, said Fraser. It’s why injecting more context is so important, he said. The legislation doesn’t take into account, for example, the difference between criticism of a public official and hurtful comments directed at a young or vulnerable person, said Fraser.

“I should be able to go on social media and, let’s say, call the premier of a province a liar for not keeping a campaign promise. Now, that may hurt his feelings, may harm his self-esteem, and so that would be cyberbullying. We need to have a way of taking those sort of things into account.”

Fraser isn’t the only person who has issues with the law.

Cara Faith Zwibel at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said she’s not sure the law is even necessary.

“My inclination would be to take a really hard look at what already exists out there to address these problems, and I think the fact is that there is quite a lot out there already that can; it’s a matter of the will to actually use those tools.”

The serious and damaging kind of cyberbullying could be addressed through existing elements of the Criminal Code that handle harassment, as well as defamation law when the matter concerns reputation, said Zwibel. She shares Fraser’s view that the breadth of the definition of cyberbullying goes too far and also has concerns about the protection orders the CyberSCAN unit can impose, which can include bans on using electronic communication.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of just tweaking the existing legislation,” Zwibel said. “I don’t think there’s been a compelling case made for why it’s necessary.”

The man who has become a leading expert on cyberbullying understands the concerns of Fraser and Zwibel, but Wayne MacKay said there are several broad questions that must be weighed.

A professor at Dalhousie University’s law school, MacKay was the lead on the province’s cyberbullying task force. He said the former government adopted a similar broad definition as was laid out in the task force’s final report. MacKay was not consulted in the drafting of the legislation.

“There’s no question that it does limit freedom of speech, as does hate speech,” he said. “The question is often whether or not it is a reasonable limit in a free and democratic society.”

The main debate will be whether the benefits of the law outweigh the invasions of rights for those who want to exercise free speech, MacKay said. It’s not an easy debate, but he thinks there is reason to believe this is reasonable.

“I think the problem of cyberbullying is a very large and significant one.”

If there is to be a change, MacKay hopes it would be to adjust the definition of cyberbullying rather than just repealing the law.

“To eliminate the law or strike the whole thing down would be quite unfortunate.”

One of the problems with attempting to address the issue through other avenues, said MacKay, is those options aren’t as well known as the new legislation. More importantly, he said, CyberSCAN is a specialized agency focused only on these kind of matters. The unit has a range of remedies at its disposal, from informal meetings with involved parties all the way up to passing the matter on to police for crim-inal charges.

“I think there really isn’t another vehicle at the moment that offers that whole range of possible remedies.”

Although there may be room for clarification and improvement with the legislation, MacKay said judges are developing a fair degree of expertise in “drawing between what is acceptable free speech” and things that aren’t. They can’t ignore the legislation, but they can interpret it and, in so doing, judges can provide the necessary nuance, said MacKay.

The government will only become involved in the matter if the discussion of a charter challenge proceeds.

Provincial officials would not comment outside of the court proceedings. An email from a Justice Department spokesman said the province believes the act is constitutional. In a brief filed with the court, the government notes that “should the protection order be revoked by this court, such a result would remove the need to review the legislation under the charter as the matter would become moot.”

“To argue issues unnecessarily wastes precious judicial resources, does not advance the administration of justice and spends counsel’s time incurring unnecessary costs.”

Fraser, obviously, doesn’t see things that way. Regardless of how the judge rules in the matter of his client, the larger issue of constitutionality needs to be addressed, he said.

“I recognize we need to protect people, particularly vulnerable people, but it should not be at the expense of charter-protected speech. There needs to be a balance, and I don’t see any of that in the legislation as it exists.”