Canada's federal police service is investing in software that, it hopes, will let it shed light onto the darkest regions of the deep internet.
The money, part of a wide-reaching program aimed at defense and security research, will be spent developing software to trace and monitor supposedly nefarious activity on the darknet — a series of encrypted sites that advertise everything from human trafficking to hitmen.
The Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP) is a funding regime that provides resources to various public safety, policing, and military programs run in conjunction with government departments. Previous rounds of funding have contributed to products that can track explosives, equipment that can detect drugs from their vapors, and training to protect Canada's energy infrastructure from cyber attacks.
The most recent cash infusion, worth some $12 million for 24 projects, focuses on everything from efforts to combat radicalization in Muslim communities, to defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and technology targeting drones.
Perhaps the most politically-charged and potentially controversial project is run by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and two technology firms.
The RCMP, the government stated, "will lead a project to develop and implement a web-crawler to explore anonymous and dark regions of the internet and identify content of interest to national security and law enforcement communities."
The federal police agency will do so in conjunction with Mercur IT Solutions and Donnybrook Research and Analysis, two tech-oriented firms located in British Columbia that do extensive work with the federal government, according to disclosure documents published to Canadian government websites.
Corporate registry records show that Mercur is run by Richard Frank and Viktoria Kettner, both of Port Moody, BC. Donnybrook is run by Garth Davies. Both Frank and Davies are criminology professors at Simon Fraser University, in BC.
In 2014, Frank developed a web-crawling program that can tag and track images of child pornography. The software, dubbed the Child Exploitation Network Extractor, was still in production as of June of last year.
Frank told VICE News that they've since expanded that software to focus on extremist websites. The main purpose of the research is to collect data on what the sites have in common, in order to trace patterns and discern trends.
Their plan for the deep web is to try and find common themes, keywords, and images from a collection of websites — pages that carry the .onion domain name, meaning they are only accessible from the anonymous and encrypted Tor — and then try to follow hyperlinks in order to map an atlas of the sprawling and confusing chasm that makes up the secret annex of the internet.
"The privacy topic always comes up when these discussions happen," Frank says. But he says that the automated software they've created isn't interested in the actual pages and possibly illegal material. "We, as the researchers, we don't really care about the individual who's behind it. We're not trying to catch an individual. We're not saying he lives at 45 Main Street."
He adds that the RCMP, which has been funding the research with the eye to eventually buy the software, has different objectives. "They're more interested in the content," Frank says.
VICE News asked the government department responsible for the funding what privacy safeguards will be in place, but did not receive a reply.
Assuming the RCMP intends, as the briefing document suggests, to police the deep web, it would put them at the forefront of an effort by investigative services worldwide to try and kibosh illicit money laundering, drug trading, and child pornography sharing that appears to be rampant. Websites claiming to traffic in human beings and offering hitman services are abundant, but there is scant evidence that they are real.
The arrest of Ross Ulbricht, convicted mastermind of illicit marketplace Silk Road, underlines that police aren't helpless in surveilling the nether regions of the internet.
But Canadian police, despite having identified it as an evolving threat, appear to have made little leeway in pursuing the cloaked members of the deep web.
David Fraser, a partner at Halifax law firm McInnes Cooper and noted privacy expert, says, generally speaking, police are free to peruse the internet and take note of what they find.
"The complicated thing is what do they do when they get there and what do they do with what they find?" Fraser says. If police are monitoring and tracking individual suspects online and using it to build a criminal case, they may be required to obtain a warrant. Police may also find themselves in trouble if they surveil entire subsections of the internet in the hopes of catching a handful of individuals.
In that case, he says, "the impact on privacy of Canadians and others is going to be affected in a way that is likely disproportionate to the law enforcement benefit."
Those officers who may find themselves "horny for data mining," he says, may figure "hey, no, this is fine. We may find a bad guy doing a bad thing, it doesn't matter that we analyzed the data of 999,999 others."
Any efforts to inject malware or code into Canadians' computers, meanwhile, certainly requires a warrant, Fraser says.
Another project funded under the CSSP will review the legal implications around "intentional or accidental intrusions into restricted airspace by small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)" as well as "counter-UAS technologies."
The Canadian government recently drew up regulations around the use of recreational drones, including a warning about taking them over restricted airspace, such as military bases, prisons, and forest fires.
The research will go into developing "counter-UAS technologies" that help police combat "these intrusions."
Questions about exactly what sort of "technology" that entailed — and whether it involved shooting the drones out of the sky — went unanswered by the government.
The CSSP funding also dispensed money to two projects that will investigate the "challenges and barriers" in dealing with young Canadians who may be at risk for "violence and radicalization," and run a study to "improve our understanding of the mechanisms that can lead some Canadians to adopt radical views."
Ottawa has been consistently criticized for its efforts to combat radicalization. While government partnerships have created groups dedicated to preventing radicalization, like Extreme Dialogue, even one of the faces of that campaign called the government's overall approach to deradicalization lacking.
Daniel Gallant, an academic researcher who studies de-radicalization and also acts as director of Exit Canada, which helps radicalized individuals disengage from extremist groups, says he was disappointed to see a lack of real government planning to prevent radicalization in the government's anti-terror bill, C-51.
He stressed that funding to organizations such as his should come with "no strings attached."
"If you're working to deradicalize someone, and you're getting money from the police and the federal government, there's a chance they're not going to come to you," he says, out of fear that police or the spy agency will want details about them.
Money is also being put towards a joint venture with WorldReach Software in order to "demonstrate how smartphone technologies…can enhance the safety and security of Canadians through early screening of travelers to Canada, while preserving and protecting traveler privacy."
A chunk of money will also go into updating the RCMP's Suspicious Incident Reporting (SIR) system, expanding information-sharing nationally and across North America.
"SIR provides the private sector stakeholder with a means to report suspicious incidents to the RCMP online, from their own work terminal," an RCMP intelligence officer said in a May 2014 article.
A list of hypothetical scenarios drawn up by the intelligence and research specialist suggests the reporting system applies to considerably broad number of issues — everything from seeing a driver pass by a facility gate and slow down to take a picture, to having uniforms and identification cards go missing from the dry cleaner.
Funding under the project will also be going to help the Department of National Defense and the RCMP dismantle improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Exact funding numbers for each project will be made public in the coming months. Defense Research and Development Canada, a government department responsible for military research, was unable to comment further.
Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling
Clarification: An earlier version of this article suggested that Gallant called the Extreme Dialogue program insufficient. In fact, he was referring to the government's general approach to deradicalization and counter-radicalization.