Monday, May 16, 2022

Video: Law enforcement requests for customer information - Come Back With A Warrant

Canadian businesses are routinely asked by police agencies to provide customer information in order to further their investigations or intelligence gathering. The police generally do not care whether the business can legally disclose the information and, in my experience, the police are generally ignorant of privacy laws that restrict the ability of Canadian businesses to cooperate with law enforcement investigations.

For some time, there was some degree of uncertainty about the extent to which Canadian businesses could voluntarily provide information to the police upon request, but this uncertainty has been completely resolved so that it is clear that if the police come knocking, Canadian businesses must respond with “come back with a warrant”.

The uncertainty that used to exist is rooted in section 7 of the personal information protection and electronic documents act, also known as PIPEDA. Section 7 is that part of the law that allows businesses to collect, use or disclose personal information without the consent of individuals. Not surprisingly, there is a provision that dictates whether an organization can or cannot give the police customer information if the police come knocking.

Section 7(3)(c.1) allows a business to disclose personal information to a police agency upon request if they have indicated that the information is necessary for a range of purposes and have identified their lawful authority to obtain the information. There's another provision in the act that deals with what happens when the police show up with a warrant or a production order.

It is clear that in those circumstances, personal information can be disclosed. If it is a valid Canadian Court order, it is likely that not providing the information could subject the business to prosecution.

There's also a provision in the Canadian criminal code that makes it clear that the police can ask for anything from a person who is not prohibited by law from disclosing, which further fed this uncertainty.

So for some time in Canada, the police believed that businesses could disclose information without a warrant as long as it was associated with the lawful investigation. Police believed that the fact that they were investigating a crime is all the “lawful authority” they needed.

Where this would come up most often would be if police had identified illegal online conduct and had the IP address of a suspect. They would seek from an internet service provider the customer name and address that was associated with that IP address at that time. Without that information, they had no suspect to investigate and ISPs hold the keys connecting that IP address with a suspect.

The Canadian association of Internet providers actually concluded a form of protocol with Canadian police that would facilitate the provision of this information. Surprisingly, the CAIP was of the view that this was not private information. What would be required would be a written request from a police agency indicating that the information was relevant to an investigation of certain categories of online offenses, principally related to child exploitation. These letters cited that they were issued under the “authority of PIPEDA”, which is simply absurd.

It is my understanding that the internet providers were generally comfortable with providing this information in connection with such important investigations. For other categories of offenses, they would require a production order.

It is also my understanding that some internet providers fine-tuned their terms of service and privacy policies to permit these sorts of disclosures, so that the businesses would have additional cover by saying in fact the customer had consented to disclosure under these circumstances.

One thing to bear in mind, of course, is that this provision in PIPEDA is permissive, meaning that if this interpretation was correct businesses could voluntarily provide this information, but does not compel them to do so. They could always insist on a court order, but very often did not.

Some courts found this agreeable and found that evidence provided voluntarily under this scheme was permissible, while other courts found it to be a violation of the suspect’s Section 8 rights under the Charter.

Then along came a case called R. v Spencer. In this case, a police officer in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan detected someone sharing a folder containing child pornography using a service called LimeWire. The officer was able to determine the IP address of the internet connection being used by that computer and was able to determine that the IP address was allocated to a customer of Shaw Communications. So the cop sent a written “law enforcement request” to Shaw and Shaw handed over the customer information associated with the account. The cops did not try to obtain a production order first.

The IP address was actually in the name of the accused’s sister.

It finally found its way up to the Supreme Court of Canada where the court had to determine whether the request was a “search” under the Charter. It was. And then the question was whether the search was authorized by law. The Court said it was not.

The police and prosecution, of course, argued that this is just “phone book information” that doesn’t implicate any serious privacy issues. The court disagreed, quoting from a Saskatchewan Court of Appeal decision from 2011 called Trapp:

“To label information of this kind as mere “subscriber information” or “customer information”, or nothing but “name, address, and telephone number information”, tends to obscure its true nature. I say this because these characterizations gloss over the significance of an IP address and what such an address, once identified with a particular individual, is capable of revealing about that individual, including the individual’s online activity in the home.”

Justice Cromwell writing for the court concluded that “Here, the subject matter of the search is the identity of a subscriber whose Internet connection is linked to particular, monitored Internet activity.”

The court said that constitutionally protected privacy includes anonymity. Justice Cromwell wrote, and then quoted from the Spencer decision of the Court of Appeal:

[51] I conclude therefore that the police request to Shaw for subscriber information corresponding to specifically observed, anonymous Internet activity engages a high level of informational privacy. I agree with Caldwell J.A.’s conclusion on this point:
. . . a reasonable and informed person concerned about the protection of privacy would expect one’s activities on one’s own computer used in one’s own home would be private. . . . In my judgment, it matters not that the personal attributes of the Disclosed Information pertained to Mr. Spencer’s sister because Mr. Spencer was personally and directly exposed to the consequences of the police conduct in this case. As such, the police conduct prima facie engaged a personal privacy right of Mr. Spencer and, in this respect, his interest in the privacy of the Disclosed Information was direct and personal.

The court then was tasked with considering what “lawful authority” means in subsection 7(3)(c.1).

The court concluded that the police, carrying out this investigation, did not have the lawful authority that would be required to trigger and permit the disclosure under the subsection. Well the police can always ask for the information, they did not have the lawful authority to obtain the information. If they had sought a production order, their right to obtain the information and Shaw's obligation to disclose it would be clear.

What the court did not do was settle what exactly lawful authority means. It does not mean a simple police investigation, even for a serious crime, but what it might include remains unknown.

What is clear, however, is the end result that this subsection of PIPEDA simply does not permit organizations to hand over customer information simply because the police agency is conducting a lawful investigation. If they want the information, they have to come back with a court order.

Just a quick note about other forms of legal process. While production orders are the most common tool used by law enforcement agencies to seek and obtain customer information, a very large number of administrative bodies are able to use different forms of orders or demands. For example, the CRTC spam investigators can use something called a notice to produce under the anti-spam legislation, which is not reviewed or approved by judge in advance.

It is not uncommon for businesses to receive subpoenas, and they need to tread very carefully and read the details of the subpoena. In order to comply with privacy legislation, the organization can only do what it is directed to do in The subpoena, no more. In the majority of cases, the subpoena will direct the company to send somebody to court with particular records. Just sending those records to the litigants or the person issuing the subpoena is not lawful.

Before I wrap up, it should be noted that the rules are different if it is the business itself reporting a crime. Paragraph (c.1) applies where the police come knocking looking for information. Paragraph d is the provision that applies where the organization itself takes the initiative to disclose information to the police or a government institution. It's specifically says that an organization May disclose personal information without consent where it is made on the initiative of the organization to a government institution and the organization has reasonable grounds to believe that the information relates to a contravention of the laws of Canada, a province or foreign jurisdiction that has been, is being or is about to be committed.

This paragraph gives much more discretion to the organization, but it is still limited to circumstances where they have reasonable grounds to believe sub-paragraph 1 applies and they can only disclose the minimum amount of personal information that's reasonably necessary for these purposes.

A scenario that comes up relatively often would be if a store is robbed, and there is surveillance video of the robbery taking place including the suspect. The store can provide that video to the police on their own initiative. Contrast that to another common scenario, where the police are investigating a crime and evidence may have been captured on surveillance video. If it is the police asking for it, and not the organization reporting it on their own initiative, the police have to come back with a court order.

At the end of the day, the safest and smartest thing that a business can do when asked for any customer personal information is to simply say come back with a warrant. Even if you think you can lawfully disclose the information, it simply makes sense that it be left to an impartial decision maker such as a judge or a Justice of the Peace to do the balancing between the public interest in the police having access to the information and the individual privacy interest at play.

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