Last week the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) released a decision in a case called R v Spencer with the court upholding internet user’s anonymity. The law now requires police officers to get a search warrant before being able to get a user’s information from their ISP (“Internet Service Provider”). Prior to this judgment, ISPs would provide police forces with user information tied to an IP address upon a request without a warrant or court order. The SCC ruled that Canadians have a reasonable expectation of privacy associated with their internet use. The SCC also confirmed that the Charter-protected right against unreasonable searches is engaged when police attempt to obtain user information matching an IP address.
The judgment provides a confirmation of citizen’s rights to privacy online, and sends a clear message that the courts will support these rights. Nevertheless, police continue to have the power to access this data by asking a judge to issue a warrant. Criminal charges stemming from internet use, such as making or distributing child pornography, are some of the most serious an accused person can face. This confirmation of a user’s right to privacy on the internet does not prevent an investigation into these crimes, nor does it prevent criminal charges being laid – it simply requires the police to take an extra step first. If the police skip this first step, however, it could lead to evidence from computer searches being tossed out and charges dismissed.