In a not-particularly-surprising move, Skype handed over a 16 year old’s subscriber information to a firm hired by Paypal. No warrant was required, as the information was provided to a private party, and that party subsequently gave it to police. In essence, a very large telecommunications service provider (TSP) made available personally identifiable information that, ultimately, led to an arrest without authorities having to convince a judge that they had legitimate grounds to get that information from the TSP.
At a talk I recently attended, a retired Assistant RCMP Commissioner emphasized time and time again that Canadians need to be more worried about corporations like Skype, Google, and Facebook than they do the federal or provincial governments. He correctly, I believe, spoke to the social harms that these companies can and do cause to individuals who both subscribe and do not subscribe to the companies’ service offerings.
Non-controversially, we know that many large companies can take actions that are harmful to individuals, as can states themselves. What is less recognized, however, is that there are more and more cases where private intermediaries are acting as one or two degrees of separation between public institutions and large private data stores. Such ‘intermediary protection’ often lets states access and use personal data that they otherwise cannot access without considerable difficulty. Worse, where authorities refuse to bring intermediary-provided data to court it can be challenging for accused persons to argue that an investigation was predicated on inappropriate access to their personal data. More time has to be spent considering the role of these data intermediaries and thinking through how to prevent the disclosure of personal data to state authorities in the absence of judicial oversight. Failure to tackle this problem will simply lead to more and more inappropriate access to corporate data by authorities, and critically to access without adequate or necessary judicial oversight.