Canada Privacy Privacy Deficit Spy Agencies

After years of secrecy, RCMP finally admits to using mass cell phone surveillance tools on Canadians

Amidst growing controversy, the RCMP says it deployed IMSI-catchers — commonly known as Stingrays — dozens of times in recent years

April 5, 2017For the first time, the RCMP has confirmed it deployed IMSI-catcher phone surveillance devices — commonly known as Stingrays — dozens of times in recent years to identify and locate suspects in criminal investigations. Today’s admission comes after years of secrecy about the use of the mass surveillance tools, which has even seen serious criminal charges dropped to keep their use a secret. It also comes after a recent CBC News investigation found Stingrays in use in downtown Ottawa and at Montreal’s Trudeau airport.

The RCMP said it now obtains a warrant for the use of Stingrays, although it has not always done so in the past. The type of warrant authorizing Stingray use can be granted based on mere suspicion — rather than belief — of wrongdoing. Although the RCMP says it doesn’t collect communications content, privacy experts warn that the collection of location information and metadata is in itself deeply invasive. Privacy advocates at OpenMedia say today’s RCMP admission is long overdue, but leaves important questions unaddressed.

“Canadians have been demanding answers about Stingray cell phone surveillance for years, and it’s a pity it took revelations about Stingray use in Ottawa to seemingly prompt this admission. Now that the RCMP has come clean, can we finally have the public debate about privacy and accountability that Canadians deserve?” said OpenMedia’s executive director Laura Tribe, whose complaintlast year triggered an ongoing Privacy Commissioner investigation into the RCMP’s use of Stingrays.“The fact that these devices are in widespread use with very few meaningful safeguards should alarm anyone who cares about their privacy and basic democratic rights.”

Tribe continued: “Today’s long overdue admission leaves important questions unaddressed. For example, how many innocent Canadians have had their private cellular data captured by the RCMP’s use of Stingrays over the past 10 years? Has any of that data been retained? Have these devices ever been deployed to monitor a political protest or demonstration? Is mere suspicion of wrongdoing enough to justify the use of Stingrays, given the serious privacy implications for law-abiding citizens? It’s also clear that the use of these devices has been going on for years, presumably with the knowledge of Public Safety Canada, despite authorization from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada only being granted this week.”

Among the key points from today’s RCMP statement are:

  • The RCMP says it has a total of 10 surveillance devices in its possession, and 24 technicians trained and authorized to deploy them.

  • The devices have been used “scores of times” in recent years, including 19 times last year and 24 times in 2015.

  • The RCMP also said other police forces own and use them too but didn’t name these police forces.

  • The RCMP used to apply for a general warrant to deploy Stingrays — however, for a period of about 4 months, it did not apply for a warrant for their use at all, based on advice from the Department of Justice.

  • The RCMP currently applies for a Transmission Data Recorder Warrant to permit its use of Stingrays. Such a warrant can be granted based merely on “reasonable grounds to suspect” an offence has been or will be committed, rather than the stronger “reasonable grounds to believe”.

  • The RCMP is tracking the number of warrants it applies for, however it does not report this to Parliament as there is no legal requirement to do so.

  • The RCMP says it is aware that these devices can interfere with other mobile phone signals and even interfere with the ability to dial 911 in older phones. As a result, it says it tries to use the devices only for a few minutes at a time in order to minimize unintended disruptions.

A comprehensive academic report last year detailed the extent to which Stingrays are being used in Canada, and the extraordinary lengths that police forces have gone to in order to keep their use a secret.

Over 45,000 people are calling on decision-makers to implement safeguards to protect innocent individuals from Stingray phone surveillance at StopStingrays.org

OpenMedia works to keep the Internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free. We create community-driven campaigns to engage, educate, and empower people to safeguard the Internet.

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