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Jones, Marakah and corporate information systems

17 Dec

There has been significant discussion of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions in R v Jones and R v Marakah – cases in which the Court recognized a reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages that police obtained from others. In Jones, the police obtained messages from a telecom company and in Marakah the police obtained messages from a recipient’s phone.

At their broadest, Jones and Marakah are clearer than ever recognition that the Charter protects digital communications although digital communications are not easily controlled or kept secret. Justice Cote said it well in Jones:

Here, as in Spencer and TELUS, the only way to retain control over the subject matter of the search vis-à-vis the service provider was to make no use of its services at all. That choice is not a meaningful one. Focusing on the fact that Mr. Jones relinquished direct control vis-à-vis the service provider is accordingly difficult to reconcile with a purposive approach to s. 8. Canadians are not required to become digital recluses in order to maintain some semblance of privacy in their lives.


Recognizing this particular, highly-normative basis for Jones and Marakah is essential to properly understanding what these cases might mean for rights and entitlements of organizations that hold the digital information of others – including employers who hold the digital information of their employees. In contrast to the above statement, the Supreme Court of Canada has already recognized that employees have a meaningful choice as to whether they use a work system for their private dealings . In R v Cole, Justice Fish said the following about employee Cole’s choice:

In this case, the operational realities of Mr. Cole’s workplace weigh both for and against the existence of a reasonable expectation of privacy.  For, because written policy and actual practice permitted Mr. Cole to use his work-issued laptop for personal purposes.  Against, because both policy and technological reality deprived him of exclusive control over — and access to — the personal information he chose to record on it.

Jones and Marakah do not detract from this statement and, if anything, invite the law to develop in a way that gives even greater emphasis to employee choice and its impact on privacy and corporate data security. Corporate data security is all about choosing the right medium – the right tool – for the purpose. Our right as citizens to text without state interference is quite a different thing.

R. v. Jones, 2017 SCC 60 (CanLII).

R. v. Marakah, 2017 SCC 59 (CanLII).


Ont CA majority says no Charter right to text in private

14 Jul

In a case that speaks to the bounds of digital privacy, the Court of Appeal for Ontario recently held that a text message sender has no reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages stored on a recipient’s phone.

Text messaging is a unique form of communication. To text certainly invites the feeling of engaging in a private conversation, but a sender’s texts are received by another person who typically has no duty of confidence and who has exclusive control of the “inbox” in which the texts are invariably left to reside. Like digital messages of all kinds, once sent, a text message is beyond control.

The question for courts in these matters is a normative one – what ought to be treated as private in our society? – so the loss of control over information does not necessarily invalidate a Charter-based privacy claim. Nonetheless, there’s a real practical consequence to the loss of control that Courts must reckon with. If they do not, we risk unduly restricting the free flow of information and free expression. Privacy is always a matter of striking an appropriate balance.

The Court issued its balance-striking judgement about text messaging on July 8th. Justice MacPherson wrote for the majority that denied privacy protection, and held that control was of “central importance” in the context. He wrote:

The facts of this case demonstrate that, unlike in Spencer and Cole, the ability to control access to the information is of central importance to the assessment of the privacy claim. We are not talking about the appellant’s privacy interest in the contents of his own phone, or even the contents of a phone belonging to someone else, but which he occasionally used. We are also not dealing with deeply personal, intimate details going to the appellant’s biographical core. Here, we are talking about text messages on someone else’s phone that reveal no more than what the messages contained – discussions regarding the trafficking of firearms.

This is far from being a question of whether the appellant had “exclusive control” over the content. He had no ability to regulate access and no control over what Winchester (or anyone) did with the contents of Winchester’s phone. The appellant’s request to Winchester that he delete the messages is some indication of his awareness of this fact. Further, his choice over his method of communication created a permanent record over which Winchester exercised control.

It has never been the case that privacy rights are absolute. Not everything we wish to keep confidential is protected under s. 8 of the Charter. In my view, the manner in which one elects to communicate must affect the degree of privacy protection one can reasonably expect.

Justice Laforme dissented – clearly differing from the majority on the importance of control, citing numerous cases in which the loss of control has not precluded the recognition of a Charter-protected privacy interest, stressing that privacy is a normative concept and in general ascribing great value to texting in private.

While the debate between majority and minority about the significance of control and standing to raise section 8 of the Charter is important, the majority and minority do not differ by much in principle. Where they clearly do differ is on the value they ascribe to text messaging. To start with the minority, Justice Laforme says texting is the “modern version of a conversation,” and is nearly romantic about it: “In my view, these private communications are an increasingly central element of the private sphere that must be protected under s. 8.”  Justice MacPherson, in contrast, has no interest in constitutionalizing texting. In a humorous and effective appeal to authority, he links to the Ontario health and physical education curriculum, under which we teach 12-year-olds across the province, “If you do not want someone else to know about something, you should not write about it or post it.” This, of course, dovetails with Justice MacPherson’s important point about electing how to communicate. To people older than 12, we typically say something like, “You want privacy, pick up the phone.”

R. v. Marakah, 2016 ONCA 542 (CanLII).

BCCA affirms its position on text message privacy

20 Apr

On April 11th, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia held that a defendant convicted of internet luring and sexual touching of a minor had a reasonable expectation of privacy in direct messages he sent to the complainant and others via a social media platform.

The trial judge had found no such expectation – a finding that rested in part on the nature of the messages. The trial judge held that the messages contained no personal information that the defendant had not posted in his public profile and were not sent to an intimate, trustworthy contact. The Court of Appeal viewed the messages differently – as “flirtatious” – and held that the trial judge rested too heavily on the “risk analysis” that characterizes American Fourth Amendment law. It reasoned:

While recognizing that electronic surveillance is a particularly serious invasion of privacy, the reasoning is of assistance in this case. Millions, if not billions, of emails and “messages” are sent and received each day all over the world. Email has become the primary method of communication. When an email is sent, one knows it can be forwarded with ease, printed and circulated, or given to the authorities by the recipient. But it does not follow, in my view, that the sender is deprived of all reasonable expectation of privacy. I will discuss this further below. To find that is the case would permit the authorities to seize emails, without prior judicial authorization, from recipients to investigate crime or simply satisfy their curiosity. In my view, the analogy between seizing emails and surreptitious recordings [as considered by the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Duarte] is valid to this extent.

In then end, the Court found a breach of section 8 but held the evidence was admissible after conducting its section 24(2) analysis.

The Court’s reasonable expectation of privacy finding follows its earlier similar finding in R v Peluco. For the context see this Law Times article.

R v Craig, 2016 BCCA 154 (CanLII).



USB key treated as a private receptacle by labour tribunal – but why?

17 Apr

On March 29th the Grievance Settlement Board (Ontario) held that a government employer did not breach its collective agreement or the Charter by examining a USB key that it found in the workplace.

They key belonged to an employee who used it to store over 1000 files, some of which were work-related and allegedly confidential and sensitive. Remarkably, the employee also stored sensitive personal information on the key, including passport applications for his two children and a list of his login credentials and passwords. The key was not password protected and not marked in any way that would identify it as belonging to the employee.

The employee lost the key in the workplace. The employer found it. An HR employee inserted they key in her computer to read its contents. She identified the key as possibly belonging to the employee. She gave the key to the employee’s manager, who inserted it in his computer on several occasions. The manager identified that the key contained confidential and sensitive information belonging to the employer. The manager then ordered a forensic investigation. The investigation led to the discovery of a draft of an e-mail that disparaged the manager and had earlier been distributed from an anonymous e-mail account.

The GSB held that the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy – one so limited as not to be as “pronounced” as the expectation recognized in R v Cole. The GSB also held, however, that the employer acted with lawful authority and reasonably. The reasonableness analysis contains some helpful statements for employers, most notably the following statement on the examination of “mixed-use receptacles” (my words):

The Association argues that the search conducted by Mr. Tee was “speculative” and constituted “rummaging around” on the USB key. It asserts that if Mr. Tee had been interested in finding files which might contain government data, he would have or should have searched directories which appeared to be work related, such as EPS, TPAS or CR. I do not find this a persuasive argument. As noted in R. v. Vu, in discussing whether search warrants issued in relation to computers should set out detailed conditions under which the search might be carried out, such an approach does not reflect the reality of computers: see paras. 57 and 58. Given the ease with which files can be misfiled or hidden on a computer, it is difficult to predict where a file relevant to an inquiry will be found. It may be filed within a directory bearing a related name, but if the intention is in fact to hide the file it is unlikely that it will be. Further, the type of file, as identified by the filename extension, is not a guarantee of contents. A photograph, for example can be embedded in a Word document. Provided that the Employer had reasonable cause to view the contents of the USB key in the first place (as I have found there was in this case), an employee who uses the same key for both personal and work related purposes creates and thereby assumes the risk that some of their personal documents may be viewed in the course of an otherwise legitimate search by the employer for work related files or documents.

I learned about this case shortly before it was decided and remarked that it was quite bizarre. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would be so utterly irresponsible to store such sensitive information on a USB key. This is one reason why I’m critical of this decision, which treats this employee’s careless information handling practice as something worthy of protection. The other reason I’m critical of  this decision is that it suggests the expectation of privacy recognized in Cole is higher than contemplated by the Supreme Court of Canada – which remarked that Richard Cole’s expectation of privacy was not “entirely eliminated” by the operational realities of the workplace. Not all of our dealings with information demand privacy protection, and in my view we need to make the reasonable expectation of privacy threshold a real, meaningful threshold so management can exercise its rights without unwarranted scrutiny and litigation.

I also should say that it’s very bad to stick USB keys found lying around (even in the workplace) into work computers (or home computers), at least without being very careful about the malware risk. That’s another reason why USB keys are evil.

Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario (Bhattacharya) v Ontario (Government and Consumer Services), 2016 CanLII 17002 (ON GSB).

SCC says the voluntary identification of an anonymous internet user is unlawful

16 Jun

Last Friday’s Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in R v Spencer renders it unlawful for a telecommunications service provider (or any other commercial actor) to voluntarily identify an anonymous internet user to help the police investigate crime.

Spencer is about the means by which police have investigated the trading of child pornography on the internet – i.e., by identifying objectionable online activity that is associated with an IP address and by asking the service provider who assigned the IP address for “subscriber information” that identifies the holder of the account to which the IP address was assigned. This legality of this means of investigation – enabled by service provider cooperation – has been heavily litigated; in 2012, the Court of Appeal for Ontario held that the police do not breach section 8 of the Charter by obtaining the identity of an anonymous internet user without judicial authorization because such a user has no reasonable expectation of privacy.

The Supreme Court of Canada has now unanimously reached the opposite conclusion. The Court stayed true to the case law that establishes that the protection afforded by section 8 of the Charter should not be debased by framing the activity that the proponent seeks to protect as criminal and therefore unworthy of protection. Although the police may have an entirely legitimate interest in pursuing criminal activity that we all can observe on the open internet, the issue according to the Court was (more neutrally) whether “people generally” have a right to use the internet anonymously.

The Court said “yes” and, in doing so, offered some principled support for online anonymity. It also said that the service provider’s contractual terms and the provision of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act that allows for voluntary disclosures to law enforcement were both too ambiguous to weigh against a reasonable expectation of privacy finding.

The Court then held that police requests for subscriber information are not reasonable because they are not  “authorized by law.” Notably, the Court did not consider whether the search was authorized by the common law nor did it consider the interplay between section 8 of the Charter and the common law constraint on police action, which a majority of Court said is less constraining than section 8 in R v Kang-Brown (see para 56). To the contrary, the Court’s decision in Spencer appears to be heavily driven by the proposition that the police only have the power to ask questions “relating to matters that are not subject to a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Spencer is a very significant decision on the reasonable expectation of privacy concept, internet anonymity and police powers.

R v Spencer, 2014 SCC 43 (CanLII).

No reasonable expectation of privacy in bad breath

9 Jan

On January 7th, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice overturned a trial decision that had recognized a Charter-protected expectation of privacy in the odour emanating from one’s breath. A doctor who had treated the accused following a motor vehicle accident told a police officer that the accused’s breath smelled of alcohol, following which the police obtained an warrant to seize a blood sample. The Court also noted that the doctor was not acting as a state agent in making his observation and reporting to the police.

R v Maureen Daly, 2014 ONSC 115 (CanLII).

SCC addresses the line between hunch and suspicion

28 Sep

The Supreme Court of Canada issued two decisions today that attempt to define the “reasonable suspicion” standard – a relaxed standard that allows for searches in the absence of prior judicial authorization in certain investigative contexts, including sniffer dog searches and school searches, for example.

The more principled of the two decisions is R v Chehil, which involves a sniffer dog search at an airport that the police conducted after determining that the accused fit the profile of a drug carrier: (1) he was traveling on a one-way plane ticket; (2) his flight originated in Vancouver; (3) he was traveling alone; (4) he purchased his ticket with cash; (5) his ticket was the last one purchased before the flight departed; (6) he checked one piece of luggage; (7) his flight was overnight; (8) his flight took place mid- to late-week; and (9) he flew on a WestJet flight. These factors, based on their training and experience, led the police to form a suspicion that the Court unanimously held was reasonable.

Justice Karakatsanis wrote the decision in Chehil. She held that the existence of a reasonable suspicion must be assessed against the totality of the circumstances. The police must assess all the objective factors that weigh for and against the possibility of criminal behavior and may have a reasonable suspicion even if the factors (each on their own or together) could support an innocent explanation.

Though the ratio of Chehil is therefore permissive, Justice Karakatsanis does state that the police must be subject to “rigorous judicial scrutiny”:

The constellation of facts must be based in the evidence, tied to the individual, and capable of supporting a logical inference of criminal behaviour. If the link between the constellation and criminality cannot be established by way of a logical inference, the Crown must lead evidence to connect the circumstances to criminality. This evidence may be empirical or statistical, or it may be based upon the investigating officer’s training and experience.

Evidence of police training and experience was a prominent feature of the dialogue in R v MacKenzie, a case in which the Court split five to four in affirming a police search.

MacKenzie is about a sniffer dog search that the police executed after conducting a highway traffic stop. The factors at issue were about guilty appearance and demeanor and more equivocal than in Chehil: the accused slowed down and pulled over upon sight of the police; he was nervous when confronted, he was sweating (on a warm day); he was breathing rapidly; he had pinkish eyes; he was driving west to east; he corrected an initial response given about travel dates. The police evidence about the probity of the factors was also more qualified; the police testified that the factors were associated with drug carrying, but not strongly.

The majority and minority in MacKenzie differ on how much weight to give a police opinion that is based on training and experience. Both accept that police opinions based on training and experience should be considered in assessing the probity of the factors. Justice Moldaver (for the majority) says that deference is not “necessarily owed to a police officer’s view of the circumstances” but that that police should be “allowed to carry out their duties without undue skepticism.” Justice LeBel (for the minority) says quite clearly that the police are owed no deference.

R v Chehil, 2013 SCC 49 (CanLII).

R v MacKenzie, 2013 SCC 50 (CanLII).