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:
- 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
- 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.