Case In Point
Supreme Court of Canada Recognizes Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in Digital Communications
Date: December 21, 2017
There has been significant discussion of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions in R v Jones and R v Marakah – cases in which the Court recognized a reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages that police obtained from others. In Jones, the police obtained messages from a telecom company and in Marakah the police obtained messages from a recipient’s phone.
At their broadest, Jones and Marakah are clearer than ever recognition that the Charter protects digital communications although digital communications are not easily controlled or kept secret. Justice Cote said it well in Jones:
Here, as in Spencer and TELUS, the only way to retain control over the subject matter of the search vis-à-vis the service provider was to make no use of its services at all. That choice is not a meaningful one. Focusing on the fact that Mr. Jones relinquished direct control vis-à-vis the service provider is accordingly difficult to reconcile with a purposive approach to s. 8. Canadians are not required to become digital recluses in order to maintain some semblance of privacy in their lives.
Recognizing this particular, highly-normative basis for Jones and Marakah is essential to properly understanding what these cases might mean for rights and entitlements of organizations that hold the digital information of others – including employers who hold the digital information of their employees. In contrast to the above statement, the Supreme Court of Canada has already recognized that employees have a meaningful choice as to whether they use a work system for their private dealings. In R v Cole, Justice Fish said the following about employee Cole’s choice:
In this case, the operational realities of Mr. Cole’s workplace weigh both for and against the existence of a reasonable expectation of privacy. For, because written policy and actual practice permitted Mr. Cole to use his work-issued laptop for personal purposes. Against, because both policy and technological reality deprived him of exclusive control over — and access to — the personal information he chose to record on it.
Jones and Marakah do not detract from this statement and, if anything, invite the law to develop in a way that gives even greater emphasis to employee choice and its impact on privacy and corporate data security. Corporate data security is all about choosing the right medium – the right tool – for the purpose. Our right as citizens to text without state interference is quite a different thing.