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More transparency needed around police surveillance as B.C. Privacy Commissioner closes inquiry into Stingray use

VPD admits it doesn’t have the device, but disclosure from Quebec reveals RCMP use, and calls into question whether or not other departments have been given access

A coalition of privacy and police accountability organizations are calling for more transparency from the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) following an inquiry into the police use of a mass surveillance devices known as Stingrays.

British Columbia’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) has closed its investigation into the VPD’s use of Stingray devices after the department finally caved and answered whether or not it has acquired the device. In a letter to Pivot Legal Society, who started the complaint, the VPD states that it “does not have this device and does not hold records” related to the use of Stingrays or surveillance devices generically known as IMSI catchers—devices that mimic cell phone towers and can collect information about cell phones in a given area, including geo-location and content data.

However, court documents released last week in Quebec by Vice and Motherboard reveal that the RCMP has possessed these devices for nearly a decade, and has allowed other police departments across the country to use them in their criminal investigations. In light of these revelations the group of privacy advocates and legal organizations involved in the OIPC inquiry are now calling on Chief Adam Palmer of the VPD to reveal whether or not the VPD has used the RCMP’s devices, or accessed data collected by the RCMP through the use of Stingrays. 

The documents released in Quebec also show the RCMP has been keeping data on innocent people acquired from the devices, calling into question whether police departments have been engaging in widespread privacy violations. 

“It’s long past the time for the VPD—and law enforcement agencies across the country, for that matter—to come fully clean on how they are surveilling the public,” says Doug King, Police Accountability campaigner at Pivot Legal Society.

The OIPC inquiry was opened following the VPD’s refusal to provide any details in a Freedom of Information request made by Pivot Legal Society last year. Pivot filed an appeal with the OIPC in March, with BC Civil Liberties Association, BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, and OpenMedia filing submissions in the Inquiry arguing that records sought must be disclosed under the access to information laws.

"We need know how this technology is being used, and not by playing a game of 20 questions through freedom of information requests," said FIPA Executive Director Vincent Gogolek

The coalition is skeptical that the VPD truly has no records relating to the use of this device, despite their assertion. Laura Tribe, OpenMedia’s digital rights specialist, stated: “Last week's revelations showed the RCMP has been in possession of Stingrays for a full decade. It defies belief that the Vancouver Police Department has no records whatsoever regarding the existence of, or the potential use of these devices. The VPD's decision to stonewall OIPC for so long amounts to a waste of taxpayer money and government resources. The public deserves an informed debate on these issues.”

Pivot Legal Society’s original Freedom of Information Request to the VPD can be found here, and the VPD's initial response neither confirming nor denying the existence of records can be found here. Pivot's appeal to the OIPC can be found here, with Intervenor submissions from BCCLABC FIPA, and OpenMedia.

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