This past April, when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police finally admitted they rely heavily on powerful and controversial surveillance hardware, police forces across Canada scrambled to get legal approval from Ottawa to use the same technology.
“Given recent media events my inspector has asked that I make an official request … for an authorization,” writes a member of the Calgary Police Electronic Surveillance Team on April 6 of this year. “There is some urgency to try and get this authorization in place as we are currently using the device.”
The device in question is an International Mobile Subscriber Identity-catcher — known more commonly as an IMSI catcher, a Mobile Device Identifier, or by the brand name Stingray. The device can track the locations of individual cellphones and scrape identifying information from kilometers away, and have been used aggressively in a variety of criminal cases. Some models are able to intercept calls and messages, although not the ones owned by Canadian cops.
“This is a serious public safety risk.”
Police forces have been loath to tell the public that they are in possession of the devices.
In documents obtained this week through an access to information request, representatives from Calgary police, the Ontario Provincial Police, and the RCMP all sent letters to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, or ISED, to seek permission to continue using the surveillance equipment.
It’s not clear from the documents whether ISED actually granted the applications.
Lex Gill, a research fellow with the Citizen Lab, in the Munk School of Global Affairs University of Toronto, says the applications to ISED “seems like a real afterthought, which is really problematic.”
The Citizen Lab, in a report co-authored with the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, was the first to publicly highlight the fact that the IMSI catchers needed to be approved by ISED — the department which regulates any device that could interfere with cellphone or radio signals — given IMSI catchers can disrupt all cell signals within more than a kilometre radius.
IMSI catchers have been know to disrupt cellphone calls, including calls placed to 911. When IMSI catchers are deployed, they can affect thousands of cellphones with kilometers of the device, not just the intended target.
“Again, this isn’t just about the device of someone who is already the target of a criminal investigation, but anyone, including totally innocent bystanders, who happen to be in range at the time,” says Gill. “This is a serious public safety risk.”
The documents show confusion inside the government about who was responsible for regulating the devices or approving their usage.
“This discussion should really have happened in public with input from everyone, not unilaterally or behind closed doors.”
In the RCMP’s letter, they argue that ISED doesn’t actually need to approve their IMSI catcher. Nevertheless, they submitted an application.
“The RCMP was first made aware of ISED views on the RCMP’s use of [IMSI catchers] through media coverage in late March 2016,” they RCMP wrote, in requesting “timely” approval to keep using the devices. A second letter, this time from the Ontario Provincial Police, similarly requests permission to use the devices — so similar, in fact, it is nearly word-for-word for the RCMP’s earlier request.
Cryptically, the RCMP’s letter also mentions “other, sensitive investigative techniques that may also warrant further analysis vis-a-vis any potential application to the Radiocommunications Act.”
On April 4, VICE News reported that ISED had approved an RCMP application to use the devices under the Radiocommunications Act. Two days after reporting that story, the RCMP revealed details about their use of the IMSI catchers in a closed-door meeting with a hand-picked roster of journalists. VICE News was not invited.
Gill says, given the privacy risks, the decision on how regulate and manage these devices should have been more transparent. “This discussion should really have happened in public with input from everyone, not unilaterally or behind closed doors,” says Gill.
The pages, released by ISED under the access to information act, are heavily redacted, while three additional pages were withheld entirely.
Also included in the documents was a 2015 letter sent from the Department of National Defence’s Director General Information Management Operations.
In the letter, it is unclear if the military is applying for an application to use an IMSI catcher or a cellphone jammer — which are governed by ISED under the same portion of the Radiocommunications Act — but the letter does note that the Canadian Armed Forces can be called on to “provide assistance to federal or provincial civil authorities for the purposes of law enforcement, public safety or national security.”
Read the full documents: