Garbage case touches on idea of practical obscurity

It’s at the obscure end of what I’ll cover on this blog, but the Alberta Court of Appeal’s October 18th decision in R. v. Patrick contains an intriguing debate about an individual’s expectation of informational privacy in garbage.

Conrad J., in dissent, held that the Calgary Police violated an accused individual’s section 8 Charter rights by seizing information…

  • mixed in with garbage…
  • in opaque garbage bags…
  • inside garbage cans…
  • that were placed in a receptacle without a lid…
  • on the accused individual’s property.

Good use of bullet points? They’re a cute prelude to the point Conrad J. makes about the accused individual’s expectation of privacy:

In this case, the appellant put his garbage out for municipal collection. Municipalities have an interest in the orderly collection and disposal of garbage. Citizens are forbidden from burning garbage in their homes and citizens pay taxes for this municipal collection service. A homeowner, such as the appellant, places his garbage out for collection on the understanding that his garbage will be treated in the same manner as his neighbour’s garbage – it will be picked up by the garbage collectors and placed inside a garbage truck where it will be mixed with other garbage. At this point, the homeowner’s privacy in respect of much of the information regarding his lifestyle and personal choices will be completely preserved because it will have become anonymous. Any privacy in garbage that identifies the homeowner directly, such as a discarded bank statement, will also be preserved, although not so completely, by the fact it is now contained within a vast pile of collected detritus that makes it almost impossible to find.

The last sentence in the above quote is significant because it endorses the concept of inaccessibility or practical obscurity of information: information can still be private (or one’s interest in keeping something private can subsist) even if it is exposed to unauthorized or limited authorized access. This concept may become more relevant given the prevalence of electronically stored information. For starters, think of the lost backup tape that can’t easily be restored and how a valid claim that the information on the tape is inaccessible might weigh against either a civil or statutory duty to warn. Accessibility may also be relevant in some disputes about waiver of a confidentiality interest or legal privilege.

Ritter J.A.’s majority judgement leaves Conrad J.’s practical obscurity point intact. Instead, and apparently taking judicial notice that garbage often goes to sorting facilities, he states, “With respect, I disagree with this assessment as it does not equate with the myriad of ways in which garbage is handled in Canada.”

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