Case Report – Court finds warantless search for ISP subscriber info unreasonable, admits evidence

11 Oct

On October 2nd, Pringle J. of the Ontario Court of Justice held that the police violated section 8 of the Charter by obtaining the identity of an individual suspected of possessing and sharing child pornography by making simple letter request to an ISP. She also admitted the evidence despite the Charter breach, and in doing so made some significant comments about the impact of terms of service on internet user privacy.

There have been a number of recent Canadian cases about whether the police can investigate internet crime by asking an ISP to reveal the identity of the individual linked to an IP address that is associated with unlawful and anonymous activity. The cases turn on whether this investigatory tactic violates a reasonable expectation of privacy. Two factors have featured strongly in the analysis (1) the nature of the information obtained by the police and (2) the contractual terms between the individual and ISP.

Unlike some other judges who have decided the issue, Justice Pringle held that the nature of the information obtained by a police request to an ISP does go to an individual’s biographical core. She explained that this tactic allows the police obtain the identity of an otherwise anonymous internet user and not simply an ISP subscriber’s name and address:

Once the police accessed Mr. Cuttell’s name and address, they were able to link his identity to a wealth of intensely personal information. Linking his name to the shared folder under his IP address, police learned a great deal about Douglas Cuttell and his lifestyle: namely in this case, his interest in adult pornography, obscenity and child pornography, which were all revealed by his choice of shared files.

Pringle J.’s treatment of the contract is even more significant. Like other judges before her, she held the that a contract between the ISP subscriber and ISP can negate an otherwise reasonable expectation of privacy. In the case before Pringle J., however, the Crown did not prove the specific contract entered into between the defendant and his ISP and therefore failed to negate what Pringle J. called a “premise of confidentiality” regarding one’s ability to engage in anonymous internet use. Her judgement suggests that reliance on ISPs alone does not negate an otherwise reasonable expectation of privacy in anonymous internet use, but the specific terms of service an individual agrees to may change this.

Ultimately, ISP terms of service did have a significant influence on the outcome in this case even though the Crown failed to prove the defendant’s specific contract. Pringle J. decided to admit the impugned evidence despite the proven Charter breach, in part, because ISPs often put customers on notice that they will make disclosures to law enforcement. She said:

I also take into account that while the privacy of subscriber information is important and can provide a critical link to personal information, a subscriber name and address does not have a great deal of intrinsic privacy on its own. As the Crown pointed out, Mr. Cuttell’s name was publicly available on Canada411, and his shared folder was also publicly available to anyone wanting to share child pornography. Many Internet Service Providers appear to contract out of their obligation of confidentiality with subscribers in similar circumstances, and accordingly it would be difficult to argue that there is a high expectation of privacy in this information: see Grant at para. 77.

In conclusion, Pringle J. said that the practice of contracting for disclosure is “unfortunate,” but also suggested that the courts will  often be powerless to grant a Charter remedy in the face of such private action.

Thanks to David Fraser for breaking the news this case. For his related opinion piece on Slaw, click here.

R. v. Cuttell, 2009 ONCJ 471 (CanLII).

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