Computer-related Search Issues
- 1 General Principles
- 2 Warrant Issues
- 3 Manner of Search
- 4 Child Pornography
- 5 Search for Data Stored Outside of Computer
- 6 Police Undercover Investigations
- 7 Disclosing Passwords
- 8 Evidence
- 9 Canadian Border Searches
Search warrants under s. 487 are the most typical manner of authorizing an officer to examine the contents of a computer.
Single Warrant for Multiple Zones of Privacy
A residential search warrant that authorizes the seizure of computer devices for its evidential value can also operate as an judicial authorization for the examination of the device.
Due to the enhanced privacy interest, the authorization must “specific[ally]” authorize the seizure of a computer before they can search it. The authorization for the device cannot be by implication.
If a computer is found during a search under a warrant does not authorize the search of a computer, it can be seized until a computer search warrant is obtained.
The initial seizure of the device and the later forensic examination is a separate police activity.
Where a computer device is lawfully seized, the police are permitted to make a forensic copy of the data.
R v Vu, 2013 SCC 60 (CanLII), per Cromwell J
see also R v Ballendine, 2011 BCCA 221 (CanLII), per Frankel JA
cf. R v Jones, 2011 ONCA 632 (CanLII), per Blair JA
Vu, supra at para 3 ("...the requirement of specific, prior authorization means that if police intend to search computers found within a place with respect to which they seek a warrant, they must satisfy the authorizing justice that they have reasonable grounds to believe that any computers they discover will contain the things they are looking for.")
R v Butters, 2014 ONCJ 228 (CanLII), per Paciocco J, at para 25 aff'd 2015 ONCA 783 (CanLII), per curiam
- Vu, supra, at para 49
R v Barwell,  OJ 3743(*no CanLII links)
, per Paciocco J, at para 18
R v Eddy, 2016 ABQB 42 (CanLII), per Rooke ACJ, at paras 49 to 50
Search of Third Party Devices for Communications
The privacy rights follow and apply to "electronic conversations" whether or not stored on the sender's device. Accordingly, a communication, as it exists on a third-party devices, may be protected under s. 8 of the Charter.
Search of an Electronic Conversation by Consent
There is some suggestion that a conversation may be accessible by the police without warrant on consent of one of the parties to that conversation. The search of a facebook conversation with consent of one of the parties did not require a warrant.
A "Locker Warrant"
There is some division in the case law in whether proper means of authorizing the examination a device lawfully seized and stored in an evidence locker. There is a line of cases that suggest that the proper means of examining the device is to ask for a "locker warrant." 
Timing of Forensic Examination
A computer held under a s. 490 warrant can be examined at any time irrespective of the time specified in the warrant.
Sufficiency of Computer Evidence
IP Address and RPG to Search
The connection of an IP address with an ISP account can form reasonable grounds to believe that a computer will be present at the address, but will often need something more.
- see R v Weir, 2001 ABCA 181 (CanLII), 156 CCC (3d) 188 (ABCA), per curiam: ("While it is possible that the computer may have been at a different location than the billing address, it was not unreasonable to conclude that something as sensitive as child pornography would be kept on a computer in a person’s home.")
Manner of Search
When searching a computer, the manner of the search must be "reasonable" and is subject to implied restrictions.
It is not permissible for police examiners to "scour the devices indiscriminately". They must "adhere to the rule that the manner of the search must be reasonable."
The examiners should not conduct full "data dump" of the entire contents of the device and then simply give the entirety of the materials extracted to the investigator where they have the ability to narrow the scope of their search to better comply with the authorization.
Limitations on search are guided by the type of evidence being sought, not any particular file format or file name. Limitations based on locations within the device are not practical. Examiners are entitled to examine any file or folder, in at least a cursory manner, to determine whether they are likely to contain evidence of the type they are seeking.
- Search Protocols
There is no need for the computer search warrant to set out a search "protocol" to limit what can be examined in the computer.
- R v Vu,  3 SCR 657, 2013 SCC 60 (CanLII), per Cromwell J, at para 61
Vu, ibid., at para 61
R v Jones, 2011 ONCA 632 (CanLII), per Blair JA, at para 42
R v Fearon,  3 SCR 621, 2014 SCC 77 (CanLII), per Fearon J, at para 20
R v Nurse and Plummer, 2014 ONSC 5989 (CanLII), per Coroza J at paras 24, 34
- Nurse, ibid.
Jones, supra, at para 43
see also R v Rafferty, 2012 ONSC 703 (CanLII), per Heeney J
- R v Cross, 2007 CanLII 64141 (ON SC),  OJ 5384 (ONSC), per Brennan J
Jones, supra, at para 44
- Vu, ibid. at para 59 ("...my view is that search protocols are not, as a general rule, constitutionally required for pre-authorization of computer searches.")
Discovery of a New Offence
When executing a search warrant in relation to a certain offence and the examiner discovers evidence of another crime, the discovered evidence is admissible, but any further searches for further evidence of the new offence must be done after applying for a new warrant.
Where a new authorization is needed, the proper procedure is to apply for a search warrant and not a general warrant.There is nothing wrong with getting a second search warrant for a device that has already been seized and searched.
R v Jones, 2011 ONCA 632 (CanLII), per Blair JA
R v Vu, 2011 BCCA 536 (CanLII), per Frankel JA appealed to 2013 SCC 60 (CanLII), per Cromwell J
R v KZ, 2014 ABQB 235 (CanLII), per Hughes J, at para 32 - Note however that this case considers "computers to be "places" of search rather than the "thing" of search within the meaning of s. 487, which is somewhat contrary to numerous other cases
- KZ, ibid., at para 40
The computer search warrant of a computer permitting the examination of the computer for specific types of child pornography, does not allow the analyst to examine all images. The police should be limited to images containing the keywords and associated range of dates.
For details on the issue of dated information regarding the presence of CP on a computer, see Information to Obtain a Search Warrant#Currency of Information.
Search for Data Stored Outside of Computer
There is some suggestion that s. 487(2.1) and (2.2) permits a search of a computer to include a search of data stored off-site.
Operation of computer system and copying equipment
(2.1) A person authorized under this section to search a computer system in a building or place for data may
- (a) use or cause to be used any computer system at the building or place to search any data contained in or available to the computer system;
- (b) reproduce or cause to be reproduced any data in the form of a print-out or other intelligible output;
- (c) seize the print-out or other output for examination or copying; and
- (d) use or cause to be used any copying equipment at the place to make copies of the data.
Duty of person in possession or control
(2.2) Every person who is in possession or control of any building or place in respect of which a search is carried out under this section shall, on presentation of the warrant, permit the person carrying out the search
- (a) to use or cause to be used any computer system at the building or place in order to search any data contained in or available to the computer system for data that the person is authorized by this section to search for;
- (b) to obtain a hard copy of the data and to seize it; and
- (c) to use or cause to be used any copying equipment at the place to make copies of the data.
R.S., 1985, c. C-46, s. 487; R.S., 1985, c. 27 (1st Supp.), s. 68; 1994, c. 44, s. 36; 1997, c. 18, s. 41, c. 23, s. 12; 1999, c. 5, s. 16; 2008, c. 18, s. 11.
Generally speaking, where data is stored in a foreign country but is readily accessible through a network within the country, the location of the original data is irrelevant.
R v Vu, 2011 BCCA 536 (CanLII), per Frankel JA at para 73 - obiter appealed on other issues to 2013 SCC 60 (CanLII), per Cromwell J
eBay Canada Ltd. v. M.N.R.,  1 FCR 145, 2008 FCA 348 (CanLII), per Evans JA, (the court of appeal stated “The location of the servers was irrelevant because electronically stored information relating to the PowerSellers was readily, lawfully, and instantaneously available in a variety of places to the appellants in Canada.”)
Police Undercover Investigations
The seizure of historical text messages will not be considered an "interception" requiring a Part VI wiretap warrant.
An undercover peace officer posing as an underage officer does not amount to an intercept.
The fact that the sender was under the mistaken belief as to the identity of the recipient does not amount an "interception".
R v Didechko, 2015 ABQB 642 (CanLII), per Schutz J
R v Vader, 2016 ABQB 309 (CanLII), per DRG Thomas J
R v Rideout, 2016 CanLII 24896 (NL SCTD), per Burrage J
R v Jones,  2 SCR 696, 2017 SCC 60 (CanLII), per Cote J
R v Scott, 2015 MBQB 87 (CanLII), per Edmond J
R v Mills, 2017 NLCA 12 (CanLII), per Welsh JA leave to appeal granted 2017 CanLII 84238 (SCC), per McLachlin CJ
cf. R v Croft, 2015 ABQB 24 (CanLII), per Burrows J
R v Allen, 2017 ONSC 1712 (CanLII)
R v Graff, 2015 ABQB 415 (CanLII), per Neilsen J
R v Ghotra,  OJ No 7253 (ONSC)(*no CanLII links)
- Mills, supra
It remains an open question whether it is possible to use a general warrant to compel a person to disclose their device password.
Operation of a Computer Device
It should not be necessary to have the investigator to give details on the "basic functions" of computer storage devices. Computer devices are to be treated as appliance and so no need of need of proof is necessary to establish basic functionality.
- Extraction Reports
Cell phone extraction reports primarily are classified as "real evidence".
These extraction results do not require independent testing or verification since they simply copy and organize data found on the device without drawing inferences.
- Inferring Location From Cellphone Evidence
It is generally accepted that a "call to or from a cell phone will usually register at the tower closest to that cell phone", which is determined by which tower has the strongest signal. This is usually but not always the tower with the closest tower.
Geographic evidence is typically tendered through use of a "propagation map" that "despict[s] the relative coverage areas of cell phone towers located at various places in a geographical area".
There will be times where the closest tower rule will not apply such as where: • the closest tower is at capacity • there is a body of water between the phone and the closest tower • there is a large obstruction between the phone and the closest tower.
Geographic evidence need not be proven by expert testimony.
Given the imperfect and limited strength of geographic evidence, a single text message from a phone may be insufficiently probative to outweigh the prejudicial value of the accused location.
- Inferences from Browsing and Search History
Inferences from internet browsing and search history must be considered in the context of all the evidence.
- In Re: Application for a General Warrant and s. 487.02 Assistance Order for Eric Talbot (2017)(*no CanLII links)
R v Wonitowy, 2010 SKQB 346 (CanLII), per Dufour J, at para 46
- R v Bernard, 2016 NSSC 358 (CanLII), per Gogan J at para 26 ("I find that the content of both Exhibits 9 and 10 [full extraction reports] are electronic real evidence.")
- R v Miro, 2016 ONSC 4982 (CanLII), per Fitzpatrick J, at para 39 ("The software and devices he used copied or removed files out of the seized devices and then organized them so D/C Dunhill, and not the software, could draw conclusions about what was present.")
- R v MaCGarvie, 2017 ONSC 2834 (CanLII), per Reid J, at para 12
- R v Cyr, 2012 ONCA 919 (CanLII), per Watt JA, at para 86
- Hamilton at para 239
MacGarvie, supra, at para 14
R v Hamilton, 2011 ONCA 399 (CanLII), per curiam, at para 277
- R v Oland, 2015 NBQB 244 (CanLII), per Walsh J at paras 77 to 78
- R v howley 2015 ONSC 7816(*no CanLII links) at para 97, 105
Canadian Border Searches
There are two sources of authority for a warrantless search of an electronic device.
Section 99(1)(a) of the Customs Act states in part that:
- Examination of goods
99 (1) An officer may
- (a) at any time up to the time of release, examine any goods that have been imported and open or cause to be opened any package or container of imported goods and take samples of imported goods in reasonable amounts;
R.S., 1985, c. 1 (2nd Supp.), s. 99; 1988, c. 65, s. 79; 2001, c. 25, s. 59; 2017, c. 7, s. 52.
Section 139(1) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act states in part that:
139 (1) An officer may search any person seeking to come into Canada and may search their luggage and personal effects and the means of transportation that conveyed the person to Canada if the officer believes on reasonable grounds that the person
- (a) has not revealed their identity or has hidden on or about their person documents that are relevant to their admissibility; or
- (b) has committed, or possesses documents that may be used in the commission of, an offence referred to in section 117, 118 or 122.
"Goods" Under Customs Act
The term "goods" is defined in s. 2(1) of the Customs Act as "conveyances, animals and any document in any form." This includes information found on computers and cellphones.
This can include any data that is in "actual possession of or in accompanying baggage of traveller at time they arrive at border and commence dealings with customs officers", but does not include records stored remotely and accessible from the device.
- Expectation of Privacy
International travelers have a diminished expectation of privacy while crossing international borders.
Warrantless Search of Phones
It has been found that warrantless searches of phones are permitted at borders.
It is not necessary that the border agent first form reasonable grounds before engaging in such a "routine search" of electronic devices.
R v Buss, 2014 BCPC 16 (CanLII), per Oulton J
R v Moroz, 2012 ONSC 5642 (CanLII), per Desotti J
R v Whittaker, 2010 NBPC 32 (CanLII), per Jackson J
- R v Gibson, 2017 BCPC 237 (CanLII), per Gillespie ACJ
- R v Simmons,  2 SCR 495, 1988 CanLII 12 (SCC), per Dickson CJ
R v Sekhon, 2009 BCCA 187 (CanLII), per Ryan JA
R v Leask, 2008 ONCJ 25 (CanLII), per Nadel J
See CBSA policy on electronic devices: OB PRG-2015-31