Canadian Police Are Quietly Building a System to Intercept Private Messages

The Provincial Lawful Access Common Environment (PLACE) is set to be up and running by 2022, according to police documents.
December 8, 2020, 5:23pm
Canadian Police Are Quietly Building a System to Intercept Private Messages
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Police in Canada's most populous province are developing a shared platform that will allow cops to more easily intercept phone communications, official documents show. 

A York Regional Police Services Board report from February 2020 shows police in York Region, Ontario, are participating in the Provincial Lawful Access Common Environment (PLACE) working group. According to the report, the working group have teamed up with provincial partners in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area to develop a "common intercept system" that will enhance police ability to intercept communications. The system is expected to be operational by 2022.

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York Region is one of several municipalities in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area. Lawful access is a euphemism used by law enforcement when referring to "interception of communications and search and seizure of information," according to the government of Canada

In response to questions from Motherboard a spokesperson for York Regional Police said in an email that Ontario Provincial Police, Toronto Police Service, Peel Regional Police, Ottawa Police Service and Durham Regional Police are collaborating with York police in the working group. 

"The PLACE project was initiated to provide participating police services with common, core capabilities to facilitate their lawful interception of private communication," the spokesperson added.

Ontario’s Solicitor General said in an email that the PLACE working group is an Ontario Provincial Police-led initiative and deferred questions to the force. Police in Hamilton also referred all questions to OPP. The OPP and police in Toronto and Ottawa acknowledged inquiries but did not respond to questions. 

Brenda McPhail, Director of the Privacy, Surveillance and Technology Project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), told Motherboard that secrecy around police surveillance capabilities in Canada is an "ongoing crisis."

"There's a complete lack of any details (about PLACE) and with a program like this, the devil's always going to be in the details," McPhail said in a phone call. She noted the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that police generally need to obtain a warrant to access basic subscriber information from telecom companies, raising questions about how the new intercept system will operate. 

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"Is there anything in this initiative that will try to argue against or work around the requirement for warrants for covert access intercepts?" she said.

Motherboard is filing access to information requests about the PLACE program but has not received records yet. The few details about PLACE contained in the York Regional Police business plan are mentioned alongside descriptions of other interception and hacking workshops undertaken by York police in recent years.

"York Regional Police has enhanced (...) Lawful Access capabilities by increasing knowledge, training and capability in Covert Access Intercept techniques," reads the report. Officers working in data recovery and other specialized units also attended an "advanced wiretap workshop" and an "Offensive Security Certified Professional course to develop 'hacking' skills for investigative purposes." 

McPhail noted that the last time there was a public discussion around law enforcement agencies engaging in hacking it was during consultations about Bill C-59—federal legislation introduced in 2017 that codified how Canada's spy agencies can operate. 

"In that case, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was allowed to engage in hacking to interfere with information on the internet, including hacking accounts," McPhail said. Without more information from police, "It's not clear what powers police would have with respect to hacking workshops."

Police across Canada have in recent years beefed up their surveillance and interception capabilities. In 2018, Motherboard reported how police forces in Ontario clandestinely rolled out unspecified surveillance equipment around the province. In 2019, police in York and Peel regions invested in a shared facial recognition system and York police have admitted to using Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition software. Police in Toronto also purchased licences from Grayshift LLC, makers of GrayKey phone hacking devices, worth $26,056 in 2019.

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