Ceci est-il une conversation?

The Supreme Court holds we can expect our text messages to remain private, even on other people`s phones

Last week, the Supreme Court released its eagerly-awaited judgment in R v Marakah, 2017 SCC 59, holding that a person had standing to challenge the admissibility of text messages to which he was a party but which the police had seized from another’s cell phone. The Chief Justice wrote the majority opinion, in which Justices Abella, Karakatsanis, and Gascon concurred. Justice Rowe wrote a brief concurrence, raising some concerns about the future implications of the majority opinion, with which he nevertheless agreed. Justice Moldaver, with the agreement of Justice Côté, wrote a fierce, strongly-worded dissent.

Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that “[e]veryone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure”.  This right applies when a person has an objectively reasonable “expectation of privacy” in the thing or information that is the object of the search or seizure. There is no question that Mr Marakah wanted and expected his exchange of text messages with an accomplice in a weapons-trafficking venture to remain private. But was he entitled to expect that the police would not read these messages on that accomplice’s phone?

The majority and Justice Rowe think that he was. As the Chief Justice put it, the

interconnected web of devices and servers creates an electronic world of digital communication that, in the 21st century, is every bit as real as physical space. The millions of us who text friends, family, and acquaintances may each be viewed as having appropriated a corner of this electronic space for our own purposes. There, we seclude ourselves and convey our private messages, just as we might use a room in a home or an office to talk behind closed doors. [28]

The information exchanged in these nooks and crannies of cyberspace is, potentially, highly private, and indeed “[i]ndividuals may even have an acute privacy interest in the fact of their electronic communications”. [33] Crucially,

this zone of privacy extends beyond one’s own mobile device; it can include the electronic conversations in which one shares private information with others. It is reasonable to expect these private interactions — and not just the contents of a particular cell phone at a particular point in time — to remain private. [37]

The fact that we might not control all the devices through which this information is accessible is not especially important. It is the information exchanged, the conversation, that is the subject of the expectation of privacy, not whatever device might allow one it view it. And even the fact the person with whom one is texting could disclose the fact or the content of the conversation does not allow the state to read it.

Justice Moldaver disagrees. For him, control is a key factor in the analysis. Justice Moldaver writes that “the reasonableness of a person’s expectation of privacy depends on the nature and strength of that person’s connection to the subject matter of the search”, and “[w]here an individual lacks any measure of control, this serves as a compelling indicator that an expectation of personal privacy is unreasonable”. [98] Justice Moldaver gives a number of examples: DNA in one’s body is private, but DNA traces left on, say, the body of a victim of a crime are not; thoughts recorded in a private diary are private, but not those publicly shared online. [116] While control does not require ownership or exclusivity of access, a lack of control means that information is not in a meaningful sense private.

When it comes to conversations, including conversations conducted by text messaging, Justice Moldaver is of the view that one loses control over what one has said once one has said it. What one’s interlocutor’s phone records is “an independent record”, [128] similar to the notes one might make after a spoken conversation, and within the interlocutor’s exclusive control. Evesdropping on an ongoing conversation, or intercepting text messages as they are being sent, violates a reasonable expectation of privacy. By contrast, just as each party to a conservation is free to share a record or recollection of it, and his or her interlocutor can (subject to any applicable privacy legislation) have no reasonable expectation of privacy in that record, so it is also with a “record” of a conversation conducted via text messaging.

Here, as I see it, is one important point of disagreement between the majority and the dissent. Both are ostensibly agreed that what Mr. Marakah had, or lacked, a reasonable expectation of privacy — or, in other words, “the subject matter of the search was Mr. Marakah’s ‘electronic conversation’ with” his accomplice. [17; 111] But it seems to me that while the majority does indeed approach the case as one about the privacy of a conversation, the dissent sees it as being not about a conversation as such, but rather about a record of a conversation. To repeat, Justice Moldaver accepts that “an electronic conversation” would be private; it could not be intercepted without due authorization. But the messages stored in the cell phone of one of the parties to the conversation are not the same thing. They are like the notes one of the interlocutors took. (Hence the title of this, in reference to René Magritte’s notorious The Treachery of Images, a.k.a. Ceci n’est pas une pipe.) As Justice Moldaver suggests, we can expect not to be eavesdropped on, when having a private conversation, but not necessarily that the contents of that conversation will never be revealed to third parties. So the majority decision makes sense in light of how it understood the issue, and the dissent makes sense in light of its author’s different understanding of the case.

But which of them is correct? I personally find this a very difficult question. A number of legal issues arising out of new technologies, broadly speaking, has to do with the erasure of the once-clear line between the spoken and the written word. The former was (usually) spontaneous and fleeting; the latter (relatively) deliberate and permanent. But electronic communications combine spontaneity and permanence in a way to which many of us are still only getting used and with which the legal system, unsurprisingly, struggles. One of my very early posts, for instance, was about a case that concerned an attempt by a university to punish students who ranted about their professor on Facebook. Student rants about a professor are nothing new, but the fact that they were made online rather than over beers left a record for the authorities to look into and to try (unsuccessfully in the event) suppressing. In a different way, the disagreement about the way to characterize text messaging “conversations” — often created in a spontaneous way, as if the parties were together in the same room, but a permanent record for the police to look at later — exemplifies the same set of difficulties. (This might come out most clearly in Justice Rowe’s brief concurrence.) On balance, though, I am inclined to think that Justice Moldaver’s view makes more sense. The idea of a never-finished conversation, to which one is always an ongoing party, and in which one is permanently entitled to expected privacy, which seems implicit in the majority’s approach, doesn’t quite make sense to me. This is a very tentative thought, however, and a minority view, I gather.

Beyond the characterization of “electronic conversations”, the Chief Justice and Justice Moldaver also disagree about the policy implications of the Supreme Court’s decision. In particular, Justice Moldaver worries that police will not be able to access, without a warrant, “electronic conversations” that are voluntarily tendered to them by one of the parties, even when the conversations are themselves crimes, and the parties disclosing them to the police are victims. A person may, for example, receive a threatening text message, and want to show it to police officers, but it is not clear that the police will be entitled to look without judicial authorization. At best, this will complicate the work of the police; at worst, serious crimes will go unpunished. The Chief Justice responds that these difficulties can be dealt with if and when they arise. For his part, Justice Rowe is not so sure, and I take that it is because he ” share[s] the concerns raised by Justice Moldaver as to the consequences of this decision” [89] that he goes to the trouble of writing separately.

A lot, then, remains to be decided. Privacy issues have been consistently difficult for the Supreme Court, or at any rate more consistently divisive than most others. I find these issues difficult too, so I have sympathy for judges on both sides. That the majority wants to be protective of privacy in a way the majority in R v Fearon, 2014 SCC 77, [2014] SCR 621 (which I criticized here) was not is heartening. (Some people on Twitter were wondering how many of the judges had got smartphones in the meantime. A cynical question, perhaps, but I’m not well placed to critcize those who are cynical about judges, am I?) The question now is whether the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of privacy. It might have, but we will have to wait to find out.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

One thought on “Ceci est-il une conversation?”

  1. To me, the issue isn’t technological or about what counts as a conversation, rather than a writing. Rather, the question is whether expectations of privacy are always individual or extend to consensual communities. When we enter into relationships with people, we continue to have expectations of privacy against the world, even when we have dropped that expectation with that other person. Perhaps they will reveal what we have told them or maybe they will not be able to protect the disclosure from the public or the state, in which case our reasonable expectation of privacy is defeated. But a big part of why we want privacy is to interact with others.

    So if we go back to the days of letters in the mail, when I send the letter, I expect privacy over its contents as against the world, but not as against the recipient. The recipient may share it, in which case I am left with the remedy of not trusting that person any more. But no one ever thought that because I put a letter in the mail, anyone could steam it open and read it, without interfering with my privacy. In the lawyer office cases, it is clearly the client’s privacy rights that are interfered with when there is a search of the office, and I would think the same would have been true if there was just a search of someone else’s filing cabinet aimed at letters I sent.

    It is true that subject to the laws of privilege, the law was always willing to compel recipients of messages (whether verbal or written) to testify as to the content of the message, based on a subpoena. On the other hand, while the test for a subpoena isn’t reasonable grounds based on oath or affirmation, a subpoena still requires some sort of legal process and can be challenged as irrelevant, for example. So the issue there wasn’t so much that I didn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy that the addreseees of my messages would be able to be silent about them, but that this expectation could be displaced on lesser process than a warrant.

    I think the problem is that Edwards is wrong: the accused may not have had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to things he left at his girlfriend’s place as against the girlfriend, but he did have a reasonable expectation as against anyone else. So too with text messages. The sender does not have a reasonable expectation as against the receiver, or anyone the receiver forwards the message to, but I would have thought the sender does have a reasonable expectation of privacy against the remainder of the world.

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