The Debate About Warrantless Access to ISP Customer Information

In the privacy community, there has been a debate over whether it is lawful, under PIPEDA, for a custodian of personal information to provide customer information when then police come knocking. The debate has been most heated in the arena of internet service providers customer names and addresses to the police when presented with an IP address. PIPEDA allows a number of disclosures of personal information without consent pursuant to Section 7(3) of the statute. One exception to the general rule relates directly to law enforcement requests:

Disclosure without knowledge or consent

(3) For the purpose of clause 4.3 of Schedule 1, and despite the note that accompanies that clause, an organization may disclose personal information without the knowledge or consent of the individual only if the disclosure is …

(c.1) made to a government institution or part of a government institution that has made a request for the information, identified its lawful authority to obtain the information and indicated that

(i) it suspects that the information relates to national security, the defence of Canada or the conduct of international affairs,

(ii) the disclosure is requested for the purpose of enforcing any law of Canada, a province or a foreign jurisdiction, carrying out an investigation relating to the enforcement of any such law or gathering intelligence for the purpose of enforcing any such law, or

(iii) the disclosure is requested for the purpose of administering any law of Canada or a province; [emphasis added]

The debate has raged over differing interpretations of “lawful authority”, and there are conflicting decisions from the Courts over whether internet service providers can disclose customer name and address information to the police in response to a request.

For example, in Re S.C., 2006 ONCJ 343, the court set aside a search warrant that was based on information obtained from an ISP in response to a law enforcement request. In R. v. Kwok, the court found that the customer had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his name and address information and that the police should have obtained a warrant to get this information from the internet service provider. From paragraph 35 of that decision:

“The subscriber, in this case, in my view, and based on my reading of the authorities, has an expectation of privacy in respect of this personal information [name and address]. The investigation of these types of crimes is essential and important, but there must always be the proper balancing of the procedures used by the police and the right of citizens to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Shortcuts, such as set out in s. 7(3)(c) of PIPEDA in the circumstances of this case must be used with great caution, given the notions of freedom and democracy we come to expect in our community. In my view, the police should have procured a warrant to obtain the subscriber information, that is the name and address of the Applicant, in this case, as I have found the name and address is information from which intimate personal details of lifestyle and choices can be obtained. I therefore find there has been a s. 8 violation.”

More recently, in R. v. Ward, 2008 ONCJ 355 (CanLII), the court determined that the customer did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to this information because the service agreement imposed upon him by Bell’s Sympatico service reduced, if not destroyed, whatever expectation of privacy he might otherwise have had. Similarly, in R. v. Wilson, the court also found no reasonable expectation of privacy.

The pendulum may be swinging the other way. Last week, the Ontario Court of Justice released its decision in R. v. Cuttell. The Court concluded there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in customer account records, but this expectation can be destroyed by an ISP if their service agreement grants them wide latitude to hand over customer information. The judge accepted that a broadly-worded statement in Bell’s contract with the customer might supplant the reasonable expectation of privacy but there was no proof brought by the police that the Bell contract applied to this customer. What is perhaps most interesting is that the Judge lamendted the fact that the increasing use of “we will disclose” language in ISP contracts tilt the balance of privacy away from individuals toward the police, without the ability of the Courts to impartially consider what is reasonable in the circumstances.

All of this may become moot (and then some!) thanks to currently pending legislation. Bill C-47, entitled Technical Assistance for Law Enforcement in the 21st Century Act, is about to come up for committee review in parliament. Introduced along with Bill C-46, Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act, both bills represent a significant shift in the powers of law enforcement. Though marketed as updating current police powers to keep pace with technology, C-47 would give law enforcement virtually unfettered access to customer information from internet and telecommunications service providers without any judicial oversight. The particular provision is at Section 16:

Provision of subscriber information

16. (1) Every telecommunications service provider shall provide a person designated under subsection (3), on his or her written request, with any information in the service provider’s possession or control respecting the name, address, telephone number and electronic mail address of any subscriber to any of the service provider’s telecommunications services and the Internet protocol address, mobile identification number, electronic serial number, local service provider identifier, international mobile equipment identity number, international mobile subscriber identity number and subscriber identity module card number that are associated with the subscriber’s service and equipment.

I am of the view that there should be appropriate judicial oversight of any regime in which service providers are required to identify their users to law enforcement officials. (Subject to exceptions in exigent circumstances.) It is only with judicial oversight that society can be assured that the appropriate balance between privacy and public safety is maintained. The government’s proposal provides no oversight and the powers of law enforcement are completely unfettered. If the concern is that search warrants are too time consuming, then appropriate resources should be put in place to provide for rapid review by independent judicial officers. Removing all the stops from law enforcement powers it not appropriate in this case.

Currently there is a disparity of practices among telecommunication service providers and internet service providers across Canada when dealing with a request from a law enforcement agent to provide a customer name and address connected with a specific IP address. This is due to at least a measure of uncertainty in interpreting the service provider’s obligations under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. Most ISPs will provide customer name and address information if law enforcement officers make a written request in the course of investigation related to child exploitation. In other sorts of investigations, a search warrant is required. Other internet service providers require a search warrant in all circumstances to disclose this information.

For example, Clause 16 as drafted does much more than impose the obligation for service providers to carry out a “reverse look-up” to match one piece of information (such as an IP address) with customer billing information. Instead, it would require the service provider to give law enforcement a laundry list of information in response to any request. This sort of information would be IP address, mobile identification number, electronic serial number, phone number, equipment identifiers and others. This, on its face, goes beyond what law enforcement has been asking for, at least in public.

This power is not subject to meaningful review and is completely unfettered. There is no restriction on the circumstances under which these powers can be used. Currently, requests of this nature generally relate to child exploitation investigations or compelling national security/public safety matters. As drafted, law enforcement would be able to use these powers in connection with parking violations and very minor concerns. In fact, these powers could be used in the complete absence of a lawful investigation. In addition, there is no limitation whatsoever on the volume of these sorts of requests. It would be possible for a law enforcement agency to require the name, address, e-mail address and IP address of every single one of their customers. I think most would say this goes over the line.

It has been said before that a customer’s name and address is not “personal information” or if it is, it is not sensitive information. That misses the point. A customer’s name and address, when connected with an IP address or a mobile phone serial number, is never used in isolation. It is always connected with other information relating to that individual’s behaviours or activities. An individual citizen can carry on their “offline” life in relative anonymity without having to produce identification every time they visit a store or look at a particular book in a library. The realities of network communications mean that every activity undertaken by an individual on the internet, lawful or not, leaves a record of that individual’s IP address. The only protection for that individual’s anonymity is that the connection between the IP address and other identifiers can only be made by the telecommunications service provider. Connecting the identity of an individual to his or her online activities amounts to a collection of personal information that should only be done by law enforcement where the circumstances are sufficiently compelling to tilt the balance in favour of law enforcement/public safety. These provisions do not maintain the traditional balance as has developed in Canada under the Charter and in fact go dramatically and unreasonably in favour of law enforcement.

I’ve been surprised that discussion of this topic has mostly been contained within the privacy community and hope that the upcoming parliamentary hearings on C-46/C-47 will bring the debate into the wider community, where it belongs.


  1. I note that in all of the cases you cite, the police admitted that it would have been possible to obtain a warrant. They simply chose not to because they had an agreement with the ISP whereby the ISP would overlook the requirement for a warrant.

    I see this as related to R. v. Chehil, where the judge expressed discomfort at a “cozy relationship” between the police and a corporation which was designed to circumvent judicial scrutiny of searches. In the digital era, as more & more of our information is handed over to corporations in order to participate in the necessities of life, I worry that these corporations, and not judges, will serve as the check on abuse of police power. Corporations are not well-positioned to balance the interests involved.