TORONTO—Telus Corp.’s first “transparency” report reveals that the Vancouver-based telecom company received about 103,500 official requests for information about its customers last year.
A majority of the requests—nearly 56,800—were in emergency situations, such as to verify the location of 911 callers and another 40,900 requests were for names and addresses that are publicly available through directories.
Telus (TSX:T) also received about 4,300 court-ordered requests in 2013, mostly as part of domestic police investigations but also two foreign requests made under Canada’s treaty obligations.
It also received 154 other requests as part of police investigations into suspected Internet child exploitation, without court orders—but the company says it no longer will provide such information in most cases without a court order.
Telus executive vice-president Eros Spadotto says the company is trying to strike a balance between fulfilling its responsibilities under the law and concern for its customers privacy.
“You don’t have to look very far to know that this has become one of the key areas with clients all over the world, no matter what service provider they have, in terms of trying to understand how their information is being used,” Spadotto said in an interview from Ottawa ahead of the report’s release.
“When you take that background, our customers-first mentality and the way the world’s evolving, it seemed like a natural for us to do this.”
Toronto-based Rogers Communications (TSX:RCI.B) issued a similar report in June, the first major Canadian carrier to do so after Chantal Bernier—then the interim federal privacy commissioner—said in April that her office had repeatedly asked telecom companies to disclose statistics and the scope of warrantless disclosure of data.
The privacy office asked 12 telecom companies in 2011 for information about their customer-information disclosure but, instead of receiving individual reports, received aggregate data from nine of the 12 through an industry association.
The privacy office estimated that federal government had asked Canadian telecom companies for private customer information about 1.2 million times each year.
In June, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 8-0 that police need a search warrant to get information from Internet service providers about their subscribers’ identities during investigations.
The top court’s unanimous decision dealt with the case of a 19-year-old Saskatchewan man who was charged with possessing and distributing child pornography after police used his Internet address to get further details from his online service provider, all without first obtaining a search warrant.
The court ruled that the information collected should not be excluded as evidence from the man’s trial, but it would be up to the Crown to rebut the presumption that a warrantless search is unreasonable under Canada’s privacy protections.
Telus says in its inaugural transparency report, which the company says it plans to issue annually from now on, it has changed some of its practices as a results of the court’s ruling.
It now requires a court order for customer name and address information, except in an emergency or where the information is published in a directory. It also will now require a court order to disclose the name and address of a customer using and Internet address to police, except in an emergency.
“Previously, it was understood that such disclosure without a court order was permitted under Canadian law and Telus’s service terms,” the eight-page report says.
Spadotto said that the court decision was only one of the factors that lead to the creation of the report.
“There are other things that have happened in the past that kind of have lead us to this path. I wouldn’t say there’s a singular event that caused us to do it,” Spadotto said.
He said that Citizen’s Lab, a public interest group affiliated with the University of Toronto, has been suggesting that subscribers ask about this type of information and the company has responded to those requests.
He also said that Telus has challenged police warrants when they appear too sweeping.
In July, an Ontario judge agreed to hear a Charter of Rights challenge brought by Telus and Rogers after they were asked by police in April to release cellphone information of about 40,000 to 50,000 customers as part of an investigation. That case is still before the Ontario Superior Court.