Criminal needles and lawful haystacks

Russell Wangersky
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Summerside is a lovely place to visit — and if you’re in P.E.I., you should definitely take the time to get there, if for no other reason than a September sunrise over the fields where Read Drive meets Route No. 2, hay bale dogs and all.

But for the purpose of this column, with a population of just 14,751 in 2011, Summerside’s just not big enough — keep that in mind.

Truro, N.S. or New Glasgow? Put the two together, and you’d only have a combined population of 21,621. Sydney, N.S.? Closer — 31,597 in the same year.

St. John’s, N.L.? Too big — 196,966.

But Charlottetown, P.E.I., with a population of 34,562 in 2011? Now, we’re getting closer.

Stop and imagine that there were a series of three armed robberies in Charlottetown, and that the police had an idea to catch the robbers. They’d simply download the data from every single cellphone user in the city — and more from the outskirts of the city — to see if anyone could be pinpointed as having been in the area of all three stores that were robbed, at the time they were being robbed.

Hey, presto! A new way to find a needle in a haystack.

But it does sound a little intrusive, doesn’t it?

It is, however, exactly what the Peel Regional Police wanted to do to find a group of jewelry store robbers in their jurisdiction. They went to a justice of the peace and asked for a production order compelling cellphone companies to hand over information on every caller whose phones were in touch with 47 different cellphone towers. The process is called a “tower dump,” and in that particular case, would include data on a minimum of 43,000 cellphone users.

Here’s how a judge described those orders: “The production orders require the name and address of every subscriber making or attempting a communication through the particular cell tower. … The production orders also require billing information which may include bank and credit card information.”

The police didn’t say what they wanted the information for, how long they planned to keep it, or even what they were going to do with it, let alone how they were going to store it securely. But the justice of the peace granted the order.

When Rogers and Telus challenged the orders, the judge agreed something was amiss. (The police argued only individuals whose data was obtained had a right to complain, but, in a catch-22, users would never know their data had been captured or, in other words, that they had anything to be complaining about.)

The judge? “Common sense indicates that Canadians have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the records of their cellular telephone activity. Whether and when someone chooses to contact a divorce lawyer, a suicide prevention hot line, a business competitor or a rehabilitation clinic obviously implicates privacy concerns. The location of a person at a particular time also raises privacy concerns. Was the person at the Blue Jays game instead of at work?”

The end result is that Ontario Supreme Court Justice John Sproat tightened up the process, issuing guidelines that would require more focused information-gathering — in fact, information-gathering directed at the perpetrators, not the public at large.

The only question?

Why would a Canadian police force believe that such a large harvesting of the private information of law-abiding citizens was legal in the first place?


Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at — Twitter: @Wangersky.

Organizations: Telus, Blue Jays

Geographic location: Charlottetown, New Glasgow, Sydney

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Recent comments

  • Stephen  Redgrave
    Stephen Redgrave
    February 04, 2016 - 14:20

    RJ!!--Are you kidding me. Are you really "drunk" after a glass of wine. Wow! cheap date you would be. If Newfoundland ever sets the legal limit to "ZERO" I will obey the law. Meanwhile , if I have a glass of wine with dinner--I'm driving home, totally confident --I am not drunk. When I was 5, or 6 years old maybe a glass of Merlot may put me over Newfoundlands legal limit of .08--Not .05 as the hand held gizmos, and the law are stating while breaching your Civil Rights.

  • Stephen  Redgrave
    Stephen Redgrave
    February 04, 2016 - 14:10

    ANGELA: Thank you very much for your candor and well articulated comments. Everything I read about myself helps me to improve on who I am. When that "something" comes from an intelligent source, it means a heck of a lot more and stays with me through life. At my age, it's nice to continue to learn and grow.

  • GAC
    February 03, 2016 - 15:04

    You seemed confused between about the difference between a criminal conviction involving a suspension and an administrative suspension. Driving is not a right. You may think it's a right but what you think doesn't make it so.

  • Stephen  Redgrave
    Stephen Redgrave
    February 03, 2016 - 10:41

    My oh my. Why is it that the people who makes theses ridiculous statements are opposed to learning the Criminal cod? I have two Jewish son-in-laws, they never practice this tradition of killing your liver on the "Purim" holiday, or holy day--whatever. Educate me on this, I'd like that, because my now jewish daughters have never spoken of it.

    • Angela
      February 04, 2016 - 15:54

      It is very difficult to dictate to those who drink to excess, they refuse to hear. Nevertheless WE have to keep on advocating with the hope that one day one of them will listen and we will probably have averted a calamity caused by a drunk to some innocent family maybe our own. In the past six months there have been two separate accidents that I have heard of through television news in Canada where both families have had their complete family existing of three children killed. One of the families was on television news just minutes ago talking about the anguish and wondering how the family was going to be able to carry on without their beautiful children. It is a sick World in many ways and especially sick when people drink to excess and drive.

  • Craig
    February 02, 2016 - 23:12

    They were looking for persons who's cellphone data met a certain criteria that could be easily queried from the database with about five minutes work. Instead, they wanted access to ALL users data. Rogers and Telus were right to challenge the orders and the judge was correct to agree with them. Police in this country are increasingly using profiling, that is the value in obtaining such a cell tower dump.

  • I
    February 02, 2016 - 15:48

    Mr Redgrave, I see in many of your posts how much you brag about being above everybody else and how great everyone is where you come from. You are so full of yourself.

  • Stephen  Redgrave
    Stephen Redgrave
    February 02, 2016 - 14:03

    Excuse me Mr "Me" , but where I come from , a man can have a pint before going home after work, It's an old English tradition. I have the self control to have only one or two, then call it quits. Alcoholism does not run in my family. I know if Ive had too many (almost never) and in that case I'd be safe at home. If the Criminal code sets the legal limit at .08 then that is the law. They have no constitutional right to issue a temporary suspension because I ate some rum cake--get it! They are breaching my Fathers Constitution , and yes--it annoys the heck out of me. The last people I call are the RNC if I have a problem. The problem is this blatant abuse of our Civil Rights by almost every province. In Quebec, they have a zero tolerance law,(.01 is impaired) so I abide by the laws of the land. In Newfoundland it is .08 to be classed as impaired. That is the law. I've never had an accident in 45 years of driving and flying.

    • Jeff
      February 03, 2016 - 10:22

      And where I came from it's an old Jewish tradition to get sloshed on Purim. That doesn't excuse me from driving drunk.

    • Stephen  Redgrave
      Stephen Redgrave
      February 03, 2016 - 10:34

      Way go to Jeff: I wouldn't drive drunk either. If you think my words condone it--You are dead wrong. Read closely---I'm not sloshed at .05. Got it!

    • Eric
      February 03, 2016 - 12:37

      Mr. Redgrave I totally agree with you on your ethics concerning alcohol.

    • Psych 101
      February 03, 2016 - 14:31

      Many old English traditions are crimes now. It does not seem like a certain someone here is in a position of self control, online? This is an anoymous forum. These people are just having you on. Winding you up. Calm down.

  • Cal Trop
    February 02, 2016 - 11:53

    The focus here is likely unique to Ontario I believe. The cops being cops are pushing the envelope to do their job. The first line of judicial defence is the so called jp. In Ontario this can be any one hand picked by the politicians ie Joe Bloggs the candy store owner or hockey arena manager with little formal education and no legal training whatever. In NL we no longer use such jps thank God.

    • Stephen  Redgrave
      Stephen Redgrave
      February 04, 2016 - 12:43

      Thank you Mr Psych 101, and Eric-- I too hate this forum of anonymous comments. Newfoundland is my home now and I only want to see changes for the good of all people.

    • Eric
      February 06, 2016 - 12:52

      Mr. Redgrave I understand why you keep on slogging on this site and that is for the betterment of all us living in Newfoundland and Labrador. I do it for the same reason. We cannot give up on the reasons for which we are using our precious time. The province and its people need to hear our voices because without dissenting voices our province will never move forward. The people have been here for more than 500 years now, 68 years of which we were supposedly under the greatest country in the World. We brought coveted natural resources into Canada and the greatest location in the country but the resources and the location have not served our province and its people in the manner they should have because they were desperately needed to build up the centre of the country with economies and people, in other words to transform Canada into a real Nation. Thanks Mr. Redgrave we need many more citizens with your ethics and the caring you display for our province.

  • Stephen  Redgrave
    Stephen Redgrave
    February 02, 2016 - 10:59

    Thanks Russell. It makes me want to cry every time I read about our Charter being used as a fly swatter. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has got to be (bible aside) the most sensible document ever drafted. To breach our Charter is like shoving your middle finger at every Canadian. While I'm on the topic of Chater violations. When a policeman , or woman has a vehicle driver blow into their hand held breathalyzer, and it shows a "warn". Your license is taken away for seven days and, vehicle impounded. Did you know--it is within your right (as the whole process is a violation) to ask to be taken into the station for a "real" certified breath analysis? It's true, but the law doesn't want you to know. They absolutely can not say no. And if a certified technician is not available, they must let you drive away with your car. The law says you are not impaired until you reach .08 mg per 100 litres of blood. Blowing a 5-6,or7--you are not guilty. I did this very thing in another jurisdiction, and was told, after blowing a warn--"just get out of here". The law is the law for everyone.

    • Me
      February 02, 2016 - 11:46

      Sounds like you have a problem with the police. Who do you call when you need help?? Maybe the 7 days and impounded is a bit extreme but you shouldn't be drinking anyway. Talk to a victim.

    • You
      February 02, 2016 - 15:06

      Google him and you'll see why.

    • Stephen  Redgrave
      Stephen Redgrave
      February 03, 2016 - 09:16

      Mr Me: I have no victims, only people I have saved from certain death. I speak my mind like my great Aunts, Vanessa, and the late Lynn Redgrave. Corin Redgrave is another of my families activists in the UK(also deceased) was also extremely vocal about things he and other knew was wrong , but most buried their heads in the sand. It's in my blood. Don't take crap from anyone. I like "rustic" , and heritage, but when I see police and Government stepping on our heads--I speak up. A drink does not a drunk driver make. You are right about 7 day suspension and loss of vehicle being excessive for blowing a .o5. Are you wasted drunk after one beer? Most of us are not.

    • RJ
      February 04, 2016 - 06:15

      Well Stephen, you are absolutely incorrect. A littler bit of knowledge is dangerous. You can have less than 80 mill of alcohol per 100 mill of blood in your system and still be impaired. The rest of what you say is so ridiculous it does not deserve an intelligent response.

    • Angela
      February 04, 2016 - 07:42

      Stephen Redgrave I agree with most of your writings. I don't like, though, that you sometimes make disparaging remarks about our province and its people. I suspect it is probably out of frustration. I do agree wholly with your statement that you speak your mind to try and better society. While there are a handful of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who do speak their mind from time to time, there are not nearly enough to make a change . Everyone needs to have his/her voice heard. We all know that for the benefit of other jurisdictions of Canada and the World Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have been shafted out of their well endowed natural resource base and strategic and geographic location that included so much wealth above and below the ground and ocean and its air space that could have transformed our province into the greatest economic piece of real estate in the World. I blame the politicians whom we elected over the past 68 years for the situation we are in, we all should know if we allow our politicians complete reign with no electorate control they will provide dictatorial governance and only do what is right for their own personal economy and not for their electorate's and the province's benefit.. Our police force are also experiencing the ill effects from that governance as well. If it had been seen to from the beginning that a vibrant economy had been laid down from our own resource base and given our people's kind nature and being exemplary law abiding citizens, the citizens of our province nor the police force most likely would not have come under the extreme stress they are experiencing from the moves that were made by our politicians of the past. I hope and pray that Premier Ball will make an attempt to turn matters around and change the economic template for our people and create a one that other areas of the World will adopt. People of our World are suffering everywhere from extreme stress from the moves of the Politicians and the Corporations. Things must change to prevent the World from sinking into oblivion!

  • james
    February 02, 2016 - 10:52

    truth be told police probably invade your privacy more than anyone else

  • Me
    February 02, 2016 - 09:14

    If the collection of my phone data results in the capture of the criminals, I am ok with that. Technology has given criminals an edge but police can't take advantage of it because of privacy. I have heard of guys at both ends of a street on watch with phones while a third checks cars. If caught, could police check the phones? I doubt it. We can't go after criminals if it involves invading their privacy but they can invade our privacy to steal our stuff. Not right.