Telus records all your texts

Yesterday, the Supreme Court in R. v. Telus, 2013 SCC 16 made an interesting ruling on what types of warrants are applicable to text messages under the Criminal Code.  What’s interesting isn’t the ruling – as expected, the Court decided that text messages are “private communications” and require a more specific warrant authorizing the interception of private communications rather than a general warrant order.

What’s really interesting is this case provides a glimpse into the internal workings of Telus as it processes text messages from its mobile subscribers.

It starts off quite normally, just like any other service provider:

When Telus subscribers send a text message, the transmission of that message takes place in the following sequence.  It is first transmitted to the nearest cell tower, then to Telus’ transmission infrastructure, then to the cell tower nearest to the recipient, and finally to the recipient’s phone.  If the recipient’s phone is turned off or is out of range of a cell tower, the text message will temporarily pause in Telus’ transmission infrastructure for up to five days.  After five days, Telus stops trying to deliver the message and deletes it without notifying the sender.

But then things get interesting:

Unlike most telecommunications service providers, Telus routinely makes electronic copies of all the text messages sent or received by its subscribers and stores them on a computer database for a period of 30 days. Text messages that are sent by a Telus subscriber are copied to the computer database during the transmission process at the point in time when the text message enters Telus’ transmission infrastructure. Text messages received by a Telus subscriber are copied to the computer database when the Telus subscriber’s phone receives the message. In many instances, this system results in text messages being copied to the computer database before the recipient’s phone has received the text message and/or before the intended recipient has read the text message.

This is interesting for a few reasons:

  1. If the sender or recipient of a text message is on Telus, then the text message will be stored for at least 30 days, and
  2. In light of this SCC ruling, Telus will give up the contents of all your text messages for the last 30 days when given a specific warrant under Part VI of the Criminal Code that authorizes the interception of private communications. However, for other mobile providers which don’t routinely store text messages like Telus, even when given such a specific warrant for the interception of private communications, they will be unable to supply the police with the contents of your previous text messages because no record of it exists.

About David Lam

David Lam is a lawyer practicing business law, real estate law, intellectual property law (patents, trademarks, copyright, licensing), and litigation in the Greater Toronto Area. For more information and to contact David, please visit http://www.davidlam.ca.
This entry was posted in Litigation, Privacy Law, Telecom Law and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Telus records all your texts

  1. Jamey Frazee says:

    Thank you David. Answered my question perfectly.

  2. Alexandra says:

    Excellent article, thank you. Can an employer intercept and read text message on a company phone operated on the Telus network?

    • David Lam says:

      @Alexandra, using a company phone creates another set of issues. Legally, an employer may access any content on a company phone or any communications made using a company phone. That said, an employer may not have the technical ability to intercept SMS text messages sent to/from a company phone since the SMS message likely did not pass through a network controlled by the employer (it only passed through carrier mobile networks). In this case, it is not likely that Telus would allow a third party to access its internal SMS logs. However, keep in mind that billing reports do reveal a lot of details and may be sufficient to allow an employer to determine whether the company phone was used for personal purposes.

  3. Tim says:

    Good morning David,

    I have a question regarding the use of a phone while driving. If a person is in an accident and suspects the other driver was using a cell, what can be done?

  4. Kate says:

    So does that mean that If you share you contract with another person can that person call telus and get a copy of the messages or is that against privacy?

  5. joanne says:

    hi david, i accidentaly deleted a text thread conversation with my boyfriend and want it back, imk with telus,, can i get this without a court order,, as u say telus has record of all my texts, its just for my personal reasons,, as they are important to me,, thanks

    • John says:

      I have the same question, Joanne. I sent a bunch of Haikus to my girlfriend and I didn’t think to save them! They were really good (at least I think so).

  6. kirm says:

    I work for a medium sized company and deal mostly with computers but occasionally with phones. I can tell you after one of our employees got a huge monthly bill (1000) I couldn’t get anything out of Telus regarding the charges except a daily data log. Of course, this was after talking to 4 or 5 of the mixed up people at Telus. In the end they claimed it was a privacy issue even though we OWNED the phone. Yes, they acknowledged that they COULD pull the date but wouldn’t without a warrant even though it was our phone. I suggested we pull all our business from them but that wasn’t going to happen. Difficult company to deal with…

    BTW David, great article and keep fighting the fine fight. Government continues to violate privacy and bully citizens all over the world and the only one standing in their way are guys like you.

  7. Quin says:

    Thank you for this article! I had my rights seriously violated and this proves it was unnecessary and solidifies my case.

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