The RCMP has been tracking our phones for years. What can we do about it?
Despite nearly 20 years of use, still no final policy on RCMP mass surveillance devices.
It was recently reported that Canada’s national police force, the RCMP, continues to use dragnet surveillance devices without a finalized policy in place, despite having had nearly 20 years to complete one. As of right now, it’s entirely unclear if the mass surveillance practices of police forces across the country are in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The surveillance devices in question are called Cell Site Simulators (CSS) and are capable of connecting to every cell phone within a 2 km radius, which in turn reveals the device ID information and location data of everyone in the surrounding area.
An official, finalized policy from the RCMP would ensure that these secretive surveillance tactics are operating in accordance with Canada’s laws. It’s very concerning that the RCMP has failed to produce one in nearly 20 years of operational use – especially considering their less-than-honest history.
The complete lack of transparency and rampant secrecy around the use of CSS devices in Canada is frightening. It dates back to 2015, when PIVOT Legal Society submitted a freedom of information request to the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), requesting records relating to their potential use of CSS devices. In response, the VPD said they “would neither confirm nor deny” that the department had any records relating to the use of CSS devices.
A year later, in 2016, through further prodding by PIVOT and the assistance of the BC Civil Liberties Association, the VPD eventually admitted to using a CSS device that was owned by the RCMP. By this point, journalists at Vice News were also reporting on the RCMP use of CSS devices through court records.
Despite all the evidence – the existence of court records, reporting from Vice News, the admission of the VPD – the RCMP somehow still hadn’t admitted to owning or using CSS devices. For this reason, OpenMedia’s Executive Director, Laura Tribe, filed a complaint with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) relating to the RCMP use of CSS devices.
The OPC then conducted their own investigation into the RCMP use of CSS devices, including an examination of the devices to determine their technological capabilities. From that investigation, people in Canada finally learned:
- The RCMP has been purchasing and using CSS devices in 2005;
- That the RCMP made CSS devices available for use for other police forces;
- That the RCMP sometimes failed to receive prior judicial approval when using CSS devices; and
- The precise technological capabilities of RCMP-owned CSS devices.
The following year, in 2017, CBC News reported that a CSS device was being used in the area around Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, raising concerns about the security of communications in the nation’s capital. To date, we’re unsure who was operating those devices.
The Problem Today
The history of CSS devices in Canada reveals law enforcement collusion in an attempt to conceal the use of indiscriminate, mass surveillance devices. For more than ten years, the police were able to use these devices to collect the personal information of people in Canada in complete secrecy.
The use of technologies like CSS devices must happen transparently and in compliance with Canada’s laws, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Having a finalized, official policy in place would help ensure that these devices are operating in compliance with our rights.
In response to recent reporting on the RCMP’s failure to finalize a policy, a representative of the RCMP cited “changes in capability” of the CSS devices as a complicating factor, suggesting that the devices might now be capable of collecting more than just device ID information and location data. This is all the more reason for a final policy to be in place.
What We Can Do
When choosing what weapons to carry during normal operations, police officers can’t grab anything they want; there are approvals and regulations that restrict what weapons they’re able to use. But for some reason, when it comes to surveillance technologies, Canadian law enforcement seems to feel like it can just do whatever it wants, despite the resulting harms.
We’ve seen this with facial recognition technology, social media monitoring tools, predictive policing software, spyware, and DNA-phenotyping. The track record of Canadian law enforcement proves they feel empowered to use any available technology without any consideration for the impacts on the rights of people in Canada.
We’re calling for new oversight mechanisms on the use of police technologies that restrict their use and protect our rights. Join us by signing the petition!