Supreme Court rules police need warrant to read text messages

The Supreme Court of CanadaCanadian police forces will need to obtain search warrants to read cellphone text messages, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in a decision that moves to protect personal privacy.

The decision reached on Wednesday comes after telecom giant Telus opposed a bid to have customer text messages turned over to police.

The Canadian Press reports that the Ontario Superior Court gave police in Owen Sound the right to seize text messages from two Telus customers without alerting the owners of the phones.

Telus appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of the cell phone company and underlined the need for police to obtain a search warrant.

[ Related: Supreme Court rules on police powers for snooping ]

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled:

Text messaging is, in essence, an electronic conversation.  Technical differences inherent in new technology should not determine the scope of protection afforded to private communications.  The only practical difference between text messaging and traditional voice communications is the transmission process.  This distinction should not take text messages outside the protection to which private communications are entitled under Part VI (of the Criminal Code).

The decision appears to underscore the legitimacy of text messages. Once a mere tool for bored teens wishing to chat during school hours, text messaging is now a preferred communication instrument in business, government and beyond.

Police seizing text messages for investigations is tantamount to obtaining emails, written letters or tapping phone conversations. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the appeal underlines this fact, and the hope is that the ruling with draw the line thick enough to stand the test of time.

[ More Brew: Top court refuses to hear drunk driver Carol Berner’s conviction appeal ]

It is worth noting that the issue came about over a technicality in the way Telus compiles text messages. Unlike most other telecom companies, Telus collects and temporarily stores text messages in a database.

Police wanted access to that database, but the Supreme Court points out that, “if the police wanted to target an individual who used a different service provider, they would have no option but to obtain wiretap authorizations.”

Perhaps the question isn’t, “Should police have access to that database,” perhaps the question is, “Should Telus?”