Canada Supreme Court rules monitoring utility data is not a privacy violation

[JURIST] The Supreme Court of Canada [official website] on Wednesday ruled [opinion, text] that the police did not violate constitutional protections by accessing a citizen’s electricity usage during an investigation. The Court reversed the decision of the appellate court by finding that during their investigation of a citizen for the possible existence of marijuana farms, the police did not violate the citizen’s rights by enlisting his electric company to monitor unusual patterns that could indicate illegal activities. The court held that the Canadian Constitution [text] "does not cloak the home in an impenetrable veil of privacy," and that it would be both impractical and unreasonable to expect otherwise. It added:

Also noteworthy here is that the home itself was never directly the object of a search. The location where the search took place was not the home but the transformer box where the power lines entering the home could be accessed. After some confusion in the courts below about whether the transformer was located on Mr. Gomboc’s property, it was common ground before this Court that it was not. Accordingly, no direct territorial privacy interest is engaged in this case.
The dissent argued that when a citizen gives a utility company access to information such as electricity use, he does so only under the condition that it is used for service purposes only, and kept private from other parties, including the government.

Earlier this year, Canada launched legal probes to investigate privacy violations of both Google and Facebook [JURIST reports]. Earlier this week, a US appeals court allowed a previous ruling against prolonged surveillance with global positioning systems (GPS) to stand [JURIST report]. In August, the court ruled that prolonged monitoring of a suspect's GPS data violates his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure [JURIST report]. The appellate court found that there exists a reasonable expectation of privacy in the "whole of a person's movements over the course of a month" because the combination of all such movements is not actually or constructively exposed to the public. The decision adds to a split among appellate courts on the issue, although the court noted that decisions to the contrary "were not alert to the distinction ... between short-term and prolonged surveillance" in the relevant precedent.

 

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