Yesterday, Ontario Supreme Court Justice John Sproat ruled that the Peel Regional Police’s actions in 2014 compelling Rogers Communications and Telus Corp. turn over records of anyone who use a mobile phone in the vicinity of certain towers during a robbery, simply went too far and violated the Charter Rights.
The practice is called “tower dump,” a police tactic of asking mobile carriers to hand over the bulk call data from their cell towers in order to aid in the investigation of a crime.
Breach of privacy
“There is an issue concerning privacy rights of hundreds of thousands of Canadians,” Sproat said.
The judge was ruling in a case where the Peel Regional Police obtained a court order for the names, numbers, addresses, and banking details of every mobile phone user whose signals were coming from various cellphone towers during a series of jewelry store robberies last year. Rogers and Telus challenged the court order as a breach of privacy.
He acknowledged that there are cases when tower dumps aid in investigations since there are instances when criminals use mobile phones to coordinate activities or exchange information, however, in this case, the search would have covered a broad swath of the carriers’ subscribers and the police were asking for banking and credit card information.
In fact, Rogers estimates that the operation required it to conduct 378 searches to retrieve some 200,000 records related to some 30,000 subscribers.
Rogers said the company went to the courts because it wanted to ensure its customers’ privacy rights were protected and that “there are ground rules for the scope of what law enforcement is able to request and access.”
Irrelevant information sought
“…it is improper for the police to seek irrelevant information,” in their investigation the Supreme Court judge ruled. “I have no hesitation that the production orders were overly broad and that they infringed Section 8 (against unreasonable search and seizure) of the charter.”
Sproat also noted the broader privacy implications affecting the general population and said police need to form their requests for call records to obtain only the minimal amount of information directly relevant to their investigation.
Now Ontario police need to follow several guidelines before a court can issue an order forcing carriers to hand over tower data.
New guidelines for police
In order to obtain a tower data production order, police would need to include in the request:
- A statement that the officer is aware of the principles of minimal privacy intrusion
- Explain why all named locations, cell towers and dates and times are relevant to the investigation
- Explain why all types of data being sought from the carrier are relevant to the investigation
- Give details that would help carriers narrow a search
- Request specific data instead of metadata
- If police want to obtain metadata they should justify their request
“For us, this request did not meet the test and we’re glad the Court agreed,” Rogers said in a statement.
In an interview with CBC News, Staff Sgt. Dan Richardson, the officer in charge of corporate communications for Peel Regional Police said the ruling means police would now have to be specific in detailing what they are searching for when seeking a court order for mobile call records.
The new guidelines “still allows police the opportunity to work towards solving crime,” he said.