Internet firms help Canadian courts ID authors of controversial email

Think you can be anonymous online? Most people simply have no idea how easy it is for law enforcement officials -- and other litigants, like someone suing you -- to gain access to personal email, Google searches, and other online information users think is "theirs."

The latest ominous evidence of this fact comes from our friends to the north. A Canadian court has ordered Google (GOOG) to turn over the identities of anonymous Gmail users who had accused York University faculty members of fraud and dishonesty. Like similar cases in the U.S., the York incident shows just how easy it is for courts to allow authorities to gain access to "our" personal information.

"People need to know that very little information that they give or make available to third parties [like Google] is unavailable to the government or private litigants," says Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law. "I think most people are surprised at how relatively easy it is for the government and private litigants to obtain 'their' information."

When York announced its hiring of Martin Singer in January as the first dean of its new Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, the university called the professor a "renowned scholar of Chinese history" and quoted university president Mamdouh Shoukri as saying: "York University is fortunate to have attracted such a strong scholar and administrator."

Shortly thereafter, someone circulated an email from an account belonging to a group called "York Faculty Concerned About the Future of York University" among members of the community accusing Singer of "lying about scholarly credentials" and accusing Shoukri of perpetrating "an outrageous fraud." The anonymous group called for the president's resignation and a new search for a dean, according to Canada's National Post.

University authorities were not amused, and won a court order in May compelling Google to turn over the IP addresses linked to the Gmail account. Google, in turn, identified Bell Canada and Rogers Communications as the internet service providers from which the email originated.

Last month, neither of the ISPs opposed a court order requiring them to turn over the contact information of the persons who used the Gmail account. This past week, Justice George R. Strathy of Ontario Superior Court called the orders a reasonable balance between protecting freedom of speech and protection from libel, according to the paper.

David Noble, whom the Post refers to as "an outspoken professor at York," was outed as one person linked to the account. On Friday, he told the paper that York's legal action was "a fishing expedition" and accused the university of "trying to create a chill among faculty."

Noble maintained that the allegations raised about Singer were legitimate. "They are spending enormous sums, for what?" the Post quotes him as saying. "I think they are just desperate to find out who is involved," adding that his colleagues wanted to remain anonymous because they were "afraid of reprisals."

In response, Will McDowell, York's lawyer, defended the action, saying, "Academics enjoy quite extensive latitude in what they say and what they write and what they research at Canadian universities, but I would say this about any of us: The right of free speech is not unlimited."

"Like all law-abiding companies, we comply with local laws and valid legal process, such as court orders and subpoenas," a Google spokesperson said in a statement to DailyFinance. "At the same time, we have a legal team whose job is to scrutinize these requests and make sure they meet not only the letter but the spirit of the law."

York now has the identities of half a dozen people who allegedly had access to the Gmail account.

American laws governing similar situations differ somewhat from Canadian statutes, but the York case is reminiscent of the recent "Skank blogger" ruling, in which a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ordered Google to turn over the e-mail and IP address of an anonymous blogger who called model Liskula Cohen "the skankiest in NYC."

Writing about the case, my colleague Jeff Bercovici noted that the ruling could force anonymous internet cranks to go to greater lengths to shield their identity. "In trying to make people accountable for the vicious things they write online, that judge is only going to force them to cloak their identities ever more effectively," Bercovici wrote.

Google search queries -- obtained by court-ordered warrants -- have been used in numerous criminal cases, including the recent case of a Florida man who was convicted of murder based on evidence that included his own Google research, which included searching on terms like "trauma, cases, gunshot, right chest."

No matter how many precautions we take to remain private or cloak our identity, the authorities and other potential litigants usually have little difficulty obtaining this content. And they do it not by nefarious mean like hacking, but through our very own court system.

Internet users everywhere would do well to take heed. Your emails -- and maybe even your Google searches -- could be one subpoena away from the prying eyes of federal authorities, not to mention private litigants.

Follow Sam Gustin, a reporter for DailyFinance, on Twitter here. Follow DailyFinance's tech coverage here.


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