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Rogers, Telus will no longer hand customer info to police without a warrant

OTTAWA - Two major telecommunications firms — Rogers and Telus — say they will no longer routinely give basic customer information to police and security agencies without first seeing a warrant.

The moves follow a recent landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision affirming the right to online privacy.

In the case of Rogers Communications Inc., concerns voiced by subscribers also played a role in tightening the disclosure policy, the company said Wednesday.

In June the Supreme Court ruled police need judicial authorization to get personal information about customers from Internet providers. The high court rejected arguments the federal privacy law governing companies allows providers to hand over subscriber identities voluntarily.

Rogers received almost 175,000 requests for customer information from government and police agencies last year, according to a report the firm issued in June.

At the time, the company said it had a policy of responding to name and address requests, which totalled 87,856 last year, so police would not issue a warrant to the wrong person.

Rogers chief privacy officer Ken Engelhart said Wednesday the Supreme Court ruling — reinforced by demands from subscribers for better privacy protection — means the practice of routine disclosure must cease.

"The Supreme Court has really made the decision. They're really the ones who have said, under the laws of Canada you have to have an order signed by a judge," he said in an interview.

"The fact that our customers were saying to us, 'Look, you should be doing more to protect us,' that was definitely the deciding factor in today's decision."

The new policy of requiring a warrant even for basic requests will be better for customers, and law enforcement will still be able to protect the public, Rogers says.

It stresses that, in keeping with the high court ruling, police would not need a warrant to get basic subscriber information in life-threatening emergencies.

In addition, if police have an Internet Protocol, or IP, address of interest and want to obtain a warrant to investigate further, Rogers will tell them which city the relevant customer lives in so they know which judge to approach, Engelhart said.

"But we won't give them any personal information — no name, no address."

Rogers has not received a "big number" of messages calling for tighter disclosure rules, he said.

"But with all of these things it's sort of like the tip of the iceberg. If a small number of people complain, there's probably a larger number that are concerned."

Telus Corp. said that in light of the Supreme Court decision, it no longer provides any customer information to law enforcement without a warrant except in emergency situations, such as when a customer calls 911 for help, or if the information is already published in a phone book.

"Protecting our customers' privacy is vitally important to Telus, and we have a long-standing practice of only providing confidential customer information to third parties pursuant to valid court orders or other applicable law," the company said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Bell Canada, another major provider, did not immediately respond to a query about its policies.

The announcements Wednesday follow high-profile debate over the government's cyberbullying legislation, which many critics say would make it too easy for police, spies and others to monitor the public's online activities.

Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, Internet service providers could give personal information to government agencies — even when investigators lacked a warrant or other judicial approval — without fear of being held liable.

The cyberbullying bill would go further, removing the requirement that a criminal offence or a breach of another federal law be under investigation in such cases. The privacy commissioner has warned that the bill would give police complete discretion to ask companies to voluntarily hand over customer data in any circumstances.

The government has said it is studying the Supreme Court decision.

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