I was a bit surprised to find this article that covered the court orders that had required Google to disclose information on some Gmail users and the subsequent orders in Canada against certain Canadian ISPs, which was the subject of a previous post. The long and short of it is that the author considers Norwich orders to be some sort of grave, grave intrusion on privacy rights and personal liberty. Hence, this dire warning at the end of the article:
No matter how many precautions we take to remain private or cloak our identity, the authorities and other potential litigants usually have little difficulty obtaining this content. And they do it not by nefarious mean like hacking, but through our very own court system.
Internet users everywhere would do well to take heed. Your emails — and maybe even your Google searches — could be one subpoena away from the prying eyes of federal authorities, not to mention private litigants.
Why am I surprised? Because it seems to lack the most basic understanding of the legal system. I won’t get into all the details of the workings of Norwich orders – the original article by Omar Ha-Redeye that I had previously mentioned does a very good job at that, and I would certainly commend it to the author of this article so he may perhaps gain some insight.
The fact of the matter is that no, your privacy rights and right to anonymity have not suddenly disappeared altogether. However, as with all rights there are limitations. Thus, while U.S. citizens have the right to bear arms, they do not have the right to shoot people. If someone were to do that, they should reasonably expect their gun (and likely their liberty) to be taken away. Similarly, if someone uses their right to anonymity in an attempt to commit a crime or harm someone else, they should reasonably expect that right of anonymity to be taken away – at least to the extent it relates to the crime.
Remarkably, the author seems to suggest that the use of “subpoenas” (presumably he meant to refer to the Norwich orders) are almost the equivalent of, say, parking tickets, that the authorities or litigants can simply write up if and when they choose to stomp on someone’s personal liberties for no good reason. What an unfortunate misperception of the legal system. The very reason why someone must go to the courts to obtain such as order is to ensure that the interests of the parties involved are balanced and safeguarded. If someone seeking the order does not have a reasonable and valid basis for doing so, it is likely that the order would not issue.
Regarding process, he cites Eric Goldman:
“People need to know that very little information that they give or make available to third parties [like Google] is unavailable to the government or private litigants,” says Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law. “I think most people are surprised at how relatively easy it is for the government and private litigants to obtain ‘their’ information.”
I can’t speak to the process in the U.S. or what Mr. Goldman considers to be “relatively easy”. What I can say is that in Canada there is reasonable due process and consideration before such orders are issued. Just to cite one part of Mr. Redeye’s article:
A Norwich order is a pre-action discovery mechanism that is described by Spence J. in Isofoton S.A. v. The Toronto-Dominion Bank,
Requests for Norwich relief are largely unfamiliar to Canadian courts. A Norwich order essentially compels a third party to provide the applicant with information where the applicant believes it has been wronged and needs the third party’s assistance to determine the circumstances of the wrongdoing and allow the applicant to pursue its legal remedies.
The 5 elements identified in this case for granting such an order include:
(i) Whether the applicant has provided evidence sufficient to raise a valid, bona fide or reasonable claim;
(ii) Whether the applicant has established a relationship with the third party from whom the information is sought such that it establishes that the third party is somehow involved in the acts complained of;
(iii) Whether the third party is the only practicable source of the information available;
(iv) Whether the third party can be indemnified for costs to which the third party may be exposed because of the disclosure, some [authorities] refer to the associated expenses of complying with the orders, while others speak of damages; and
(v) Whether the interests of justice favour the obtaining of disclosure.
The privacy interests of the alleged wrongdoer were overcome by the last element, the interests of justice, because of the applicant’s equitable right to information. Spence J. pointed to Alberta v. Leahy and Bankers Trust Orders (from Bankers Trust Co. v. Shapira) indicating that court orders can override confidential information, even for financial records, and Glaxo-Wellcome PLC v. M.N.R. that the privacy interests of alleged wrongdoers is somewhat diminished.
Perhaps its just me, but this doesn’t sound particularly easy.
Of course, as with most things, the legal system is certainly not perfect, and there may well be instances where abuses might occur, or wrong decisions might be made by the courts where the scales of justice tip a bit. But to point at the sky and say it’s falling because of this case seems to me to be somewhat premature, to say the least.
Or at very least, as far as privacy concerns go, consider focusing more on things like the NSA and TIA than the courts.