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Updated: Fri, 13 Jun 2014 05:00:00 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Internet privacy ruling to come from Supreme Court today



The incident caused the province to issue a warning letter to 90 people whose data may have been compromised. Shutterstock

The incident caused the province to issue a warning letter to 90 people whose data may have been compromised. Shutterstock

Should your internet provider be able to give police the name and street address attached to your internet address without a warrant?

Canada's top court is set to rule on that today.

The Supreme Court of Canada is deciding on whether to accept the appeal of Matthew David Spencer of Saskatchewan, who says his rights were violated when his internet provider gave police the real identity attached to his IP address, a series of numbers representing a person's internet identity.

Spencer was charged and convicted of possession of child pornography after a police officer saw files being downloaded to his IP address. The police officer went to Spencer's internet service provider, Shaw, and asked for the real identity of the customer attached to the IP address. The police officer did not have a warrant, but was given the address of Spencer's sister, allowing police to track him down. That kind of disclosure is allowed under Canada's Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which governs the collection and handling of personal information by the private sector in Canada.

Spencer appealed the decision. The Court of Appeal ruled there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for basic internet subscriber information, prompting Spencer to appeal to the Supreme Court.

David Fraser, a privacy lawyer with the Halifax firm McInnes Cooper, is watching the case in the hopes that it will provide some clarity about internet privacy rights.

The court is hopefully going to consider to what extent and under what circumstances police can go to your internet service provider and say, "Hey unmask this individual who we've seen doing whatever online and connect that IP address with an actual identity," he said.

Normally, most of our activities on the internet are anonymous because only our IP addresses and not our real identities are publicly visible.

Privacy on internet vs. real world

Fraser said that is comparable to what happens in the real world.

"You and I can go into a library and peruse whatever books related to sensitive health information, health conditions without having to identify yourself," he said, "but as soon as you go on a website related to those sorts of things, you expose your IP address and the only thing that prevents your IP address being connected to you as a person is your internet service provider."

Fraser said it may be easy to dismiss the privacy rights of those involved in unsavoury crimes.

"But looking at it from the bigger picture, those exact same rights that protect the privacy of an accused in a criminal case are the exact same rights that protect my privacy and your privacy."

Rogers Communications released a report last week showing that it received almost 175,000 requests for information about its customers from government and police agencies last year.

In March, the Chronicle Herald newspaper in Halifax reported the Canada Border Services Agency alone accessed telecom customer data almost 19,000 times in one year — and without a warrant more than 99 per cent of the time.

In 2011, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association reported to Canada's privacy commissioner its members received 1.2 million requests for customer information in one year and disclosed information about 780,000 customers. 

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