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Telus joins transparency push by sharing demands for customer info

The Telus store at at 2187 Queen St. East in Toronto's Beach neighbourhood is photographed on March 5 2014. The Vancouver-based company is publishing its first so-called “transparency report” Thursday morning, revealing that it received 103,462 requests for customer information from government officials and law enforcement agencies in 2013.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Telus Corp. is joining Rogers Communications Inc. in sharing figures that shed light on the frequency of state demands from government authorities for customer information and is calling for an industry-wide approach to reporting such data.

The Vancouver-based company is publishing its first so-called "transparency report" Thursday morning, revealing that it received 103,462 requests for customer information from government officials and law enforcement agencies in 2013.

That figure covers six categories, including requests accompanied by court orders or warrants, name and address checks and emergency requests from police. The company has not disclosed how often it complied with demands for information about its subscribers.

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"We're reacting to what we see as public sentiment. With modern telecoms and the Internet, people are curious about how much of that information is shared and under what circumstances," Eros Spadotto, Telus executive vice-president of technology strategy, said in an interview explaining the decision to reveal the numbers.

"We'd like to come up with a common structure of reporting. Every operator has their own independent operating systems and each is different," he added. "The population at wide wants this information and it would be good if we can all provide the same kind of information."

Before Telus's disclosure, the only Canadian telecom companies that had shared such information were Rogers and independ- ent Internet provider TekSavvy Solutions Inc. In the United States, Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. have begun publishing transparency reports and British telecom giant Vodafone Group PLC issued a lengthy report of its own this June.

BCE Inc. and Shaw Communications Inc. have not released such reports; nor have they shared plans to do so. BCE, owner of Bell Canada, will say only that it complies with the law; Shaw has not responded to requests for comment. (BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)

Christopher Parsons, a research fellow with Citizen Lab, which is part of the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, says he commends Telus for following through on a commitment to release a report this summer and for its call for industry standards on such disclosures.

"The trick is, however, that we're still missing Bell Canada, which is the largest telecommunications provider in the country," he said. "Clearly, there's an industry movement in Canada and all across North America toward these transparency reports and Bell Canada needs to be on board."

In reports published in June, Rogers said it received 174,917 requests in 2013 while TekSavvy said it handled 52 requests for customer information in 2012 and 2013 and made disclosures in 17 of those cases.

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Rogers did not say how many requests it fulfilled, stating that its systems were not set up to track that information at the time, the same reason cited by Telus. The companies say they plan to provide those details in future reports.

Telus said random sampling of the warrant or court order requests it received demonstrated that in 40 per cent of the cases, it provided only partial information or no information at all. The company has frequently said it objects to court orders it sees as overly broad. In an ongoing case, Telus and Rogers are jointly challenging warrants they received in April seeking cellphone information of about 40,000 to 50,000 customers in Peel Region in Ontario as part of a so-called "tower dump" request.

Comparing the Telus and Rogers reports reveals some striking differences between the requests the two fielded. Both companies have roughly the same total number of cellphone, Internet and home phone customers – 12.6 million for Rogers and 12.5 million for Telus – but Rogers received about 70,000 more requests than Telus.

Rogers said it fielded 74,415 requests for information under a court order or warrant while Telus had just 4,315. Mr. Spadotto said that discrepancy is likely because Telus tracked only the number of warrants or orders, not the specific number of subscribers affected.

On the other hand, Telus fielded far more requests for information in emergency situations – 56,748 versus the 9,339 Rogers received – which he said was because Telus is the traditional home phone provider in the areas it operates (Rogers does not have a legacy telephone business) and also provides technical support for 911 services.

Mr. Spadatto said he expects once operators start capturing information in the same way and reporting it under standardized categories, the volume of requests will start to align from provider to provider.

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Mr. Parsons says any industry standard around reporting should also include disclosure about how long the companies retain customer information.

In an FAQ section of its report Thursday, Telus said it keeps customer bills for seven years to comply with legal requirements and maintains call detail records for up to 14 months for network management and billing purposes. It also keeps logs of Internet protocol addresses for 90 days for the purpose of network management.

Rogers said in its report it keeps customer bills for seven years and retains other information for only as long as required for "business purposes."

Both Rogers and Telus say they no longer provide information related to customer name and address checks without a warrant after a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling in June that upheld Canadians' right to online privacy.

In the Spencer case, the court unanimously ruled that police must obtain a search warrant before asking Internet providers for details that would identify their customers, and both companies said in July they adjusted their policies to comply with the decision.

On that subject, BCE again only says that it complies with the law but does not state whether it has changed its practice in the wake of the Spencer decision.

How Telus and Rogers reports compare:

 

Rogers

Telus

Customer name/address checks

87,856

40,900

Court order/warrant

74,415

4,315

Legislative demands

2,556

1,343

Emergency requests from police

9,339

56,748

Child sexual exploitation emergency assistance requests

711

154

Court order to comply with mutual legal assistance treaty request

40

2

Total

174,917

103,462

Number of customers (wireless, home phone and Internet)

12.6 million

12.5 million

Ratio of requests to customers

1:72

1:120

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About the Author
Telecom Reporter

Christine Dobby covers the Canadian telecom industry for The Globe and Mail. Before joining the Globe in May 2014 she reported for the Financial Post for three years, most recently writing about telecom and media. She has also reported for the Toronto Star and New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. More

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