Canada's top court upholds Internet users' privacy protection

OTTAWA, June 13 Fri Jun 13, 2014 12:36pm EDT

OTTAWA, June 13 (Reuters) - The Supreme Court of Canada ruled on Friday that authorities cannot legally ask an Internet provider to give them the names of customers and other personal information without a warrant, a victory for online anonymity that puts up obstacles for police.

The country's top court brought down the unanimous ruling in the case of Matthew David Spencer, who was convicted of possessing child pornography by a Saskatchewan provincial court.

The court ruled that in the Spencer case, police conducted a search when they requested and obtained subscriber information attached to a publicly available IP address from cable company Shaw Communications Inc.

It also said that Web surfers have a reasonable expectation of privacy that was breached by the request. The information obtained from Shaw by police connected the IP address to Spencer and revealed much about his online activity.

Spencer gained access to the Internet from an account registered in his sister's name, but he used his own computer to store hundreds of sexually explicit images and videos of children.

The court said the police, armed with a name and address linked to the account, were able to pinpoint Spencer's usage in breach of his reasonable expectation of anonymity and protection from unreasonable search.

Without the information gleaned from that search, the court said police would not have obtained a warrant to physically search Spencer's property.

It said that in this specific case police had acted in good faith and the evidence gathered would be admitted in a re-trial of Spencer on a charge of knowingly making pornographic images and videos available to others via a file-sharing program.

While Shaw's terms of service allow the company to disclose customer information to satisfy legal requests, Shaw is also subject to privacy laws that require the customer's knowledge or consent except in exceptional circumstances, the court said.

The case is R v Spencer, 2014 SCC 43, docket number 34644. (Reporting by Alastair Sharp; Editing by Peter Galloway)