Privacy: “Get Over It”?

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Not so fast. In 1999, the CEO of Sun Microsystems famously said: ”You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” The Supreme Court of Canada apparently disagrees.

The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) released their decision in R. v. Cole last week. While this does stray from our usual review of intellectual property law, it is an important decision impacting the overlapping areas of privacy and technology. The SCC has decided that it’s reasonable for Canadians to expect privacy in the information contained on computers used for personal purposes “at least where personal use is permitted or reasonably expected.” In this analysis, ownership of the computer or laptop (or tablet, smartphone, etc.) factors into the decision of what’s reasonable, but is not conclusive. Similarly, an employer’s policies may be taken into consideration, but won’t be determinative. In other words, regardless of who owns the hardware or what the policy says, courts will consider “the totality of the circumstances in order to determine whether privacy is a reasonable expectation in the particular situation.”

Even where the laptop is owned by the employer and the workplace policy informs employees that their use will be monitored - these factors may result in a lower expectation of privacy but the expectation of privacy, according to the SCC, does not disappear as easily as you might think.

Lessons for business? Employers must tread carefully and get advice when monitoring or accessing the personal information of employees on workplace computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones and virtual systems.

Related Reading: Our earlier post: Privacy in a workplace laptop, reviewing the Ontario Court of Appeal decision in R. v. Cole, 2011 ONCA 218.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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