Is there a reasonable expectation of privacy in a Facebook page?

A judge of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice doesn’t believe there is.  In R. v. Patterson 2018 ONSC 4467, the accused used Facebook Messenger to lure a 15-year-old boy for the purpose of committing a sexual offence [luring]. The victim of the alleged offence provided investigators with his Facebook password and gave them permission to download his communications with the accused. The Toronto Police Service then made a request to the US seeking an order from an American court requiring Facebook to provide the complete record of the accused’s Facebook communications from its servers in Texas. The request was granted and Facebook sent all of the requested records directly to the officer in charge of this investigation.

Patterson applied to exclude the evidence obtained both from the alleged victim and from Facebook based on a violation of his rights under section 8 of the Charter. It was the position of the defence that Patterson has a privacy interest in those messages and that investigators were obliged to obtain warrants from a Canadian judicial officer prior to reviewing the Facebook page or opening the records forwarded by U.S. law enforcement officers.

The defence position is premised on the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in R.v. Marakah 2017 SCC 59 (a case I posted about earlier). As backdrop, in Marakah the court found that the accused had a reasonable expectation of privacy in text messages which had been seized from his co-accused’s cellphone. Defence in Patterson argued that Marakah is good authority for the proposition that Patterson retains a reasonable expectation of privacy in electronic messages that he sent and received over Facebook despite the fact that those records were saved in the victim’s own Facebook account as well as the Facebook servers in Texas.

In Marakah, it was clear that the applicant had a direct interest in the communications because he was a participant in the text conversations and the author of the messages which were introduced as evidence against him. Patterson’s Facebook activities included several different types of communication: text based conversations with the victim which constitute the actus reus of the offence of child luring; images and text received by Patterson as a member of a Facebook group where members would exchange images of child pornography and fantasize about the sexual abuse of children; the Facebook profiles, background images, and subscriber information which Patterson used to create the Jim Jay, Josh Jay, and Ric Patterson Facebook accounts.

The judge found that Patterson has no direct interest in the first category of communications (the text messages which he sent to the victim). Those messages constitute the actus reus of the offence of child luring. The constitutional rights which protect our privacy have never gone so far as to permit an accused to claim privacy in respect of his own criminal offences, ruled the judge.  As for the second category, the judge said that when a Facebook user joins such a group, he implicitly consents to receiving any communication sent to the group by another member and also consents to his own messages being distributed to every other member. The members of the group have very limited means of confirming the identity of other members and they have no means of preventing members from distributing their communications outside of the group. Patterson arguably has a direct interest in his own contributions to the group but it would be very difficult to find that he has a direct interest in the entire group’s conversation simply because he was a member of it.

The judge said Patterson does have a direct interest in the third category of his Facebook communications (the account details and profile pages for his three Facebook accounts). Bearing in mind that these communications were deliberately left open to any Facebook user to read, the expectation of privacy may be almost negligible but at least it can be said that Patterson has a direct interest in the content.

The judge said in Marakah, text messaging is a narrow, targeted form of communication. Facebook is a broadcast. Depending on the user’s privacy settings, a Facebook page can be read by anyone in the world who is connected to the Internet. Patterson deliberately fashioned the Josh Jay and Jim Jay accounts in order to draw a particular type of Facebook user to his page. He was trolling for young gay males. The female officer was able to navigate to the profile page for both accounts and read the posted biographical information without any need to be accepted as a “friend”. She was able to see the profile pictures that Patterson selected for Jim and Josh Jay, read their biographical information, and see the profiles of those who had befriended them on Facebook. A significant portion of what Patterson sought to exclude is information which he previously invited the world to see.

Thus, said the judge, Patterson’s claim to a reasonable expectation of privacy in his Facebook records dies here. No reasonable person would expect that communications such as these would remain private. Patterson was messaging with a 15 year old boy who had given him no assurance of confidentiality. The communications were conducted over Facebook messenger, a medium which seemingly keeps an indelible record of supposedly private communications. All of the messaging took place over the Internet with snippets and artifacts of the conversation being captured on devices, servers, and systems at every juncture of the communication. As the judge said, a reasonable Internet user might hope that such communications would remain private but no one with even a modicum of understanding of information technology would expect it.

 

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