A Superior Court in Ontario, Canada has ruled that IP addresses are akin to your home address, and therefore people have no expectation of privacy when it comes to their online activities being accessed by law enforcement. This means that, in Canada, police can potentially request information from your ISP about online activities, and can do so without a warrant.
Your activities on the Internet are akin to your activities out in public—they’re not private and are possibly open for police scrutiny, according to an Ontario Superior Court. The ruling was made by Justice Lynne Leitch on—surprise!—a child pornography case. The judge said that there’s “no reasonable expectation of privacy” when it comes to logs kept by ISPs. Canadians, watch out, because everything you do online could soon be turned into legal fodder, even without a warrant.
The case in question came about when, in 2007, police asked Bell Canada to hand over subscriber information for a particular IP address that they suspected of accessing and “making available” child porn online. According to the National Post, the ISP handed over the name and contact information for the account without asking for a warrant, which is apparently typical among ISPs in Canada only if the request is related to a child porn investigation.
The lawyer for the defendant—the defendant being the husband of the woman whose name was on the account—disagreed with Bell South’s actions. He argued that since there were no accusations of luring a child or putting a minor in danger, a warrant should have been required. This argument was rejected by Judge Leitch, however, who equated the information to data that the state already has.
“One’s name and address or the name and address of your spouse are not biographical information one expects would be kept private from the state,” she wrote. She also stated that Canada’s Personal Information Protection Electronics Documents Act allows for ISPs to give IP information to a “lawful authority,” which she interpreted as not requiring a warrant.
Though it’s clear that the ruling in the case (which is still ongoing) was made with good intentions, privacy advocates know what the road to hell is paved with. Critics fear that such a precedent could open the doors to police asking for information on all manner of Internet activities, ranging from the embarrassing to the questionable-but-legal, without judicial oversight.
One instructor from Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School argued that, even when criminal activity is suspected, a warrant should be required.
“[E]veryone wants to get at the child abusers,” professor James Stribopoulos told the National Post, which is why judges seem to be agreeing with Judge Leitch’s interpretation of the law. “It is not just your name, it is your whole Internet surfing history. Up until now, there was privacy. An IP address is not your name, it is a 10-digit number. A lot more people would be apprehensive if they knew their name was being left everywhere they went.”
IP addresses aren’t necessarily accurate indicators of who’s behind certain activities online. As many college campuses in the US have argued to the RIAA, IP addresses are reassigned often and no single student can be tied to a single IP address much of the time. IP address data can even be incorrect (or incorrectly matched up by ISPs), leading to some being unfairly accused of illegal activities.
Judge Leitch’s ruling has privacy advocates in Canada worried, as it is binding to lower courts in Ontario. “There is no confidentiality left on the Internet if this ruling stands,” Stribopoulos said.