Rights To Internet Privacy

In a recent decision, the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC ”) held that internet protocol (“IP”) addresses attract a reasonable expectation of privacy protected by Section 8 of the Charter. This was not an easy decision by the SCC, which issued a lengthy, split ruling in March 2024. This decision is expected to have practical implications for police services, which will now need prior judicial authorization before requesting IP addresses. Private organizations, such as internet service providers, search engines and online advertising companies, will also be affected if the decision influences the development and interpretation of Canadian privacy laws.

R v Bykovets (2024) SCC.

Facts

An Alberta police investigation into fraudulent online purchases from a liquor store required a third party to disclose certain IP addresses to the authorities. The police then used the IP address to obtain a warrant for Mr. Bykovets’ internet provider to disclose the subscribers’ names and addresses. The resulting search provided evidence, which was used to charge Mr. Bykovets with fraudulent activities.

Trial

At trial, Mr. Bykovets argued that the third-party provider should not have disclosed his IP address to the police, as it violated his right to privacy. His trial judge and the Alberta Court of Appeal rejected this. Both ruled that an IP address provided no biographical information about a person’s lifestyle. Therefore, a reasonable expectation of privacy did not apply.

Decision

The only issue for the SCC to consider was whether a request for an IP address was a “search,” which has been defined as occurring when the state invades a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The court analyzed this question by addressing, first, the subject matter of the search and, second, whether Mr. Bykovets’ expectation of privacy in the subject matter was objectively reasonable.

The SCC’s Emphasis on Informational Privacy and Section 8 Expansion

In addressing the first question, the SCC emphasized that Section 8 protects informational privacy. This includes “a biographical core of personal information which individuals in a free and democratic society would wish to maintain and control from dissemination to the state.” In the view of the majority, Section 8 should be expanded to adjust to the increased importance of information aggregated by private third parties. The decision stated that due to the spread of the internet, the courts must consider “how different data sets in combination with other data sets affect privacy rights”. Not only does the internet keep an accurate permanent record, but it has also concentrated this mass of data in the hands of third parties, which has invested them with immense personal information. These third parties have thus entered the constitutional ecosystem. Though not necessarily the subject of Section 8 protections, they mediate the relationship between the individual and the state.

IP Addresses and Inferred Information: Expanded Privacy Protections

Regarding the subject matter of the search, the majority stated that courts must consider not just the information searched but also information that could be inferred from the search. The majority concluded that police often seek IP addresses “as the key to obtaining more information about a particular internet user, including their online activity and, ultimately, their identity.” The potential alone to reveal personal biographical core information was enough to trigger Section 8 protection.

Application to Bykovets

In the case before them, the majority ruled that the IP address is “the first digital breadcrumb that can lead the state on the trail of an individual’s Internet activity.” While a given IP address may not necessarily reveal any personal information, it can establish an electronic road map of the individual’s online activity when connected to other information. Accordingly, the state should be required to obtain prior judicial authorization before obtaining an IP address, and it is not onerous to expect them to do so. The court ordered a new trial for Mr. Bykovets.

The New Regime

The majority’s opinion grappled with the ever-changing landscape of the digital age. While an IP address does not reveal an individual’s core biographical details, it is an important first step toward obtaining such information. It is becoming increasingly common for large corporations to collect data on internet users and sell it to third parties. However, just because this is accepted as a part of modern-day commerce does not mean it has to be for the relationship between the individual and the state.

Concerns

There has been some concern about the impact of this ruling on criminal offences more serious than liquor fraud, such as child pornography. Society has an interest in the successful investigation and prosecution of such offences. However, it should be noted that the SCC only partially closed the door to obtaining IP addresses. Instead, it instituted a regime whereby the police must justify obtaining such an IP address with a warrant before proceeding with such an investigation.

This blog post does not constitute legal advice and was written solely to provide information. If you would like to consult with a lawyer about the issues raised in this post, please contact Empel Law Professional Corporation at 416-500-1937.

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