The news: Canada just took a huge leap forward in the name of Internet privacy.
The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled on June 13 that police will now need a warrant before asking an Internet provider to give up information about its users. This is a bombshell decision: It will protect Canadian citizens against potentially undue searches by law enforcement, while allowing them to retain the anonymity — even online — that's afforded to them by their constitution.
It's already standard practice to require a warrant in instances of physical searches. With this ruling, Canada has effectively placed a person's online behavior on the same level as his or her behavior in real life.
Federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien said it was "a seminal decision for privacy protection in Canada." It also comes as legislators elsewhere — including the U.S. Congress — have stayed silent on the issue.
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The background: Canada is no stranger to extending the rights of its citizens in the digital age. The Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that police must get a warrant before searching computers or mobile phones, and in 2012, citizens were appalled when politicians attempted to pass a bill that would require ISPs to monitor users.
This recent ruling was in response to an unlikely and highly charged case. In 2007, investigators without a warrant gathered data on a user that was then used to convict him for possessing and distributing child pornography. Critics of the decision to require warrants alleged that it would punish law enforcement agencies working on cases like this one, saying it would encourage a "crime-friendly Internet."
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What does this mean for the U.S.? Unlike Canada, the American government has been significantly slower to expand online privacy. There have been some strides, like the Obama administration's "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, but thus far Congress hasn't acted. And a proposed update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act — which dates back to 1986 — had just gained, as of Tuesday, the numbers it needed to pass.
Public opinion suggests we side with Canada: According to a recent Pew survey, 68% of Internet users think current legislation isn't good enough. And 50% are concerned with the amount of personal information online, which has increased sharply from 2009, when only 33% of Americans held that belief.
Image Credit: Pew Research Center
In response to Congress' utter inaction on the issue, states have taken it upon themselves to implement changes. Montana became the first state to pass a law requiring a warrant for access to cellphone records, and Oklahoma passed a law to protect student data.
The takeaway: If the Web really does become as common as electricity by 2025, Americans have every right to the protection of their privacy. To be sure, there are merits to the argument that requiring warrants will cause additional problems — primarily because of the precious time they add to the judicial process — but the rights of individual citizens should come first.
The inability of Congress to act swiftly is yet another example that our elected officials seem to have only one skill: causing their constituents to bang their heads against the wall in frustration.
Our Canadian neighbors are on the right track, and we'd do well to follow their lead. For now, however, we can only hope individual states keep us on track.