Law Enforcement Access to ISP Subscriber Information

The Supreme Court of Canada has released its judgment in the Spencer case. It held that the police had no legal right to ask an ISP for subscriber information, as that would violate the subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy. The type of information that could be gleaned from the information went beyond the mere name and address into browsing practices, i.e. sensitive information in which the subscriber might reasonably expect anonymity.

The section of PIPEDA that allows custodians of data to disclose the data to law enforcement officials without telling the data subject, did not apply where the search was not otherwise supported by law. The section does not create any separate right of police to ask for the information.

Thus this evidence was improperly obtained and would not support a search warrant.

In this case, the Court allowed the evidence obtained from the search warrant because the police thought they were acting legitimately.


a) Do you think the decision is right on the privacy interest and the relation of PIPEDA to police searches?
b) Do you think that law enforcement officials will have a harder time in the future getting subscriber information?
c) Will it increase the pressure for lawful access legislation such as the old C-30 and the current C-13?
d) Does the decision make it harder for politicians to say ‘it’s just like phone book listing’ in referring to legislation to authorize law enforcement access to such information?


  1. David Collier-Brown

    I’m really quite relieved: in my view the ISP is acting on my behalf, and shouldn’t be secretly passing on my contact information to anyone, except when a court orders, or there is a genuine emergency.

    What is needed now is a set of standard practices for Police and ISPs to use in urgent cases, which may or may not be emergencies.

    For example, an ISP receiving a call from the police about a young person threatening suicide might well call the parents and ask if they could forward the police call to them. That way the parents get to decide if they wish to tell the police who and where they are.