OTTAWA – The Supreme Court of Canada ruled Friday that police must obtain a warrant to access basic information on Internet users, affirming online anonymity as a privacy right.
The unanimous 8-0 decision in the case of a Saskatchewan man accused of possessing child pornography on his computer could make it harder to prosecute illegal downloading and other Internet crimes.
The ruling also sets the stage for a constitutional challenge of proposed laws being considered by Parliament that would expand police powers to snoop online.
In the Saskatchewan case, police had identified hundreds of child porn videos and images on a computer that were accessible to other Internet users using the file-sharing program LimeWire.
Authorities needed to determine the location of the desktop computer by matching the Internet Protocol (IP) address with a physical address.
So they simply asked Internet service provider Shaw Communications for the name, address and phone number of their customer associated with the IP address, and used this information to obtain a warrant to search the suspect’s home and seize his computer.
Prosecutors said police were simply making inquiries when they asked Shaw to hand over subscriber information.
But the defense argued that the data could also be used to reveal intimate details of a person’s lifestyle and personal choices, and so should be closely guarded.
Both the trial judge and court of appeal concluded that obtaining the subscriber information was not a search — in the legal sense.
The top court disagreed.
“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,” Justice Thomas Cromwell wrote in the decision.
“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.”
The top court, however, upheld the child pornography conviction, citing the seriousness of the crime and saying that the officers reasonably thought they were using “lawful means” to track down a suspect.