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Telecoms Must Defend Our Privacy, Court Confirms

Telecoms Must Defend Our Privacy, Court Confirms

Ontario decision orders companies to represent subscribers’ interests.

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Court ruled law enforcement’s request for thousands of subscribers’ cell phone records breached Canadian Charter rights. Anonymous photo via Shutterstock.

In today’s communications driven world, no one collects as much information about its customers as telecom companies. As subscribers increasingly rely on the same company for internet connectivity, wireless access, local phone service, and television packages, the breadth of personal data collection is truly staggering.

Whether it is geo-location data on where we go, information on what we read online, details on what we watch, or lists identifying with whom we communicate, telecom and cable companies have the capability of pulling together remarkably detailed profiles of millions of Canadians.

How that information is used and who can gain access to it has emerged as one the most challenging and controversial privacy issues of our time. The companies themselves are tempted by the prospect of “monetizing” the information by using it for marketing purposes, law enforcement wants easy access during criminal investigations, and private litigants frequently demand that the companies hand over the data with minimal oversight.

As a result, courts and privacy commissioners have regularly faced questions about the rights and responsibilities associated with subscriber information. For example, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada ruled last year that Bell’s “relevant advertising program,” which provided advertisers with the ability to target ads based on subscriber personal information, ran afoul of Canadian privacy law because the company simply presumed that it could use the information without an explicit, opt-in consent.

The Canadian courts have similarly grappled with a myriad of privacy issues, including whether basic subscriber information carries with it a reasonable expectation of privacy (the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that it does) or if an internet provider can be required to reveal the identities of internet subscribers in a copyright infringement lawsuit (it can subject to conditions limiting how the information is used).

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