In the wake of a landmark court ruling last month that upheld Canadians’ right to online privacy, telecommunications companies are tightening their policies on when they will share customer information with police and government authorities.
The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled in June that police must obtain a search warrant before asking Internet providers for details that would identify their customers, and Rogers Communications Inc. said Wednesday it has overhauled its policies to comply with the decision.
The move by one of Canada’s biggest cellphone, Internet and home-phone companies comes as the federal government works to pass legislation that academics and privacy advocates warn will erode protections around Canadians’ personal information. The Conservatives’ anti-cyberbullying bill is still before the House of Commons, but if passed in its current form, Bill C-13 would give legal immunity to telecommunications companies that voluntarily hand subscriber information to police and other public officials.
However, if telecom providers refuse to voluntarily disclose information without a warrant or court order, that could weaken the effect of the legislation, said Christopher Parsons, a research fellow with Citizen Lab, part of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
“Rogers’s decision shows even though that liability shield is being offered, some telecoms may decline to take advantage of it,” he said Wednesday. “Rogers is not the entire industry, of course. But if we see [others] start to take a similar position, maybe that would defray the impact of C-13, although it wouldn’t mean that C-13 was a better law.”
Apart from situations involving life-threatening emergencies, Rogers said it now requires “lawful authority” – a court order, warrant or equivalent production order – to provide basic customer details to law-enforcement agencies or government agencies with the power to request information under legislation (for example, the Canada Revenue Agency).
Ken Engelhart, vice-president of regulatory affairs at Rogers, said it is not “100-per-cent clear,” but he reads the Supreme Court’s June 13 decision in the Spencer case to mean: “No production order, no name and address.”
Secondly, he said in an interview, “there’s been a huge amount of interest about this and our customers are saying to us, ‘Why aren’t you doing everything you can to protect my information?’And so those two factors led to this decision.”
The Citizen Lab’s Mr. Parsons said Rogers’s policy shift is a positive step. “This is just making it really clear to their subscribers that no matter what interpretation [of the ruling] the authorities take, Rogers’s interpretation is going to be: You need to come with a warrant.”
Before the court’s ruling, telecom providers often gave customer information to police without a warrant in cases involving child exploitation; Rogers said in a “transparency report” published in June it received 711 such requests in 2013.
Mr. Engelhart said the company decided to stop responding to such requests except in emergency situations immediately after the Supreme Court ruling. He added that the change in policy announced Wednesday applies to a much broader category of “customer name/address checks,” under which Rogers received about 88,000 requests in 2013. He said the company will no longer confirm basic name, address and phone information without an order.
Independent Internet service provider TekSavvy Solutions Inc. said in early June it would no longer respond to such requests without a warrant or production order.
Shawn Hall, a spokesman for Telus Corp., said Wednesday the Vancouver-based company also amended its policies three weeks ago. “In light of the Spencer decision we no longer provide any customer information to law enforcement without a warrant except in emergency situations, such as when a customer calls 911 for help or is lost at sea, or information already published in a phone book.”
BCE Inc. spokesman Mark Langton said, “Bell always follows the law in disclosing information to government and law enforcement agencies,” but did not say whether the company has updated its policies in light of the ruling. (BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.) Western Internet provider Shaw Communications Inc. did not respond to a request for comment.