In a press release issued on October 26, 2016, the Ontario Provincial Police announced that they would be adopting a new investigative technique – one that relies on cellphone tracking of ordinary members of the public. The use of this new technique is being launched in the context of the investigation of an unsolved murder that took place in Ottawa in 2015. Police are searching for leads in the case.
The OPP sought a Production Order from a justice of the peace. This order required major cellular phone service providers to furnish them with a list of cellphone numbers used in the vicinity of West Hunt Club and Merivale Road in Ottawa, between 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. on December 15, 2015. Production orders for cell phone information have become commonplace. Typically, however, they have been used to determine whether a person of interest to the police was in a certain area at a specific time. This is not the case here. In this case, the police intend to send text messages to the individual cell phone numbers provided by the phone companies. These messages will encourage recipients to visit a web site set up by the police and to respond to some questions. According to the press release, the production order did not include customer name and address information associated with the phone numbers. In theory, then, individual privacy is protected by the fact that an person who does not respond to the text message does provide any further identifying information to the police.
There is clearly a public interest in solving crimes. Where investigations have grown cold, new techniques may be important to finding justice for victims and their families. However, it is also important that any new investigative techniques are consistent with the principles and values that are an integral part of our justice system. Privacy advocates and the public have reason to be concerned about this new investigative technique. Here are some of the reasons why:
First, production orders of this kind provide completely inadequate opportunities to hear and consider the privacy interests of affected individuals. Persons accused of crimes can always challenge in court the way in which the police went about collecting the evidence against them. They can argue that their privacy interests were violated and that search warrants should never have been issued. However, ordinary members of the public have little practical recourse when their privacy rights are infringed by investigations of crimes that have nothing to do with them. In a decision of the Ontario Superior Court (which I wrote about here) Justice Sproat reviewed production orders for massive amounts of cell phone data sought by police. He was sharply critical of both the seeking and the granting of a production order for quantities of cell phone customer data that far exceeded what was genuinely required for the purpose of the investigation. The case impacted the privacy rights of the broad public (it involved the data of over 43,000 customers) yet as is so often the case, the public had no way to learn of or challenge the production order before it was granted. In that case, it was the Telcos – Rogers and Telus – who challenged the production orders and raised privacy issues before the courts. Without this intervention, there would have been no voice for the privacy interests of ordinary citizens and no means of reviewing the legitimacy of the order.
Second, production orders of this kind come with no safeguards for the protection of data after it has been used by police. Production orders typically do not contain directions on how long data can be retained, whether it should be destroyed after a certain time, what other uses it might (or should not) be put to, or what safeguards are required to protect it while it is in the hands of police. The lack of such safeguards was commented upon by Justice Sproat in the case mentioned above. He was of the view that this was an issue for Parliament to address. Parliament has yet to do so.
In its press release, the OPP analogized what it was doing to police going through a neighborhood where a crime has taken place and knocking on doors to see if anyone has seen or heard anything that might be relevant. The analogy is problematic. The existence and location of houses and apartment units are matters of public record – they are in plain view. However, data about the cell phone usage of individuals, along with their location information, as they carry out their day to day activities are not. When police seek access to information that allows them to identify the locations of thousands of individuals who are not suspected of engaging in criminal activity, they are doing more than knocking on doors.
There needs to be a public conversation about how and when police get to tap into the massive volumes of data collected about the minutiae of our daily activities by private sector companies. The use of cell phone data production orders by the OPP in this case merely adds to list of subjects for that conversation. Because the use of this data by police is now to identify and contact people who are themselves not the targets of criminal investigation, these individuals effectively have no way in which to raise privacy concerns. This is a conversation that must be led by Parliament and that most likely will require new law.