In the middle of a national debate over government spying, Canada’s federal police force is still refusing to provide any details regarding some of its most powerful, and controversial, surveillance powers.
New documents obtained by VICE News through the Access to Information Act show that the RCMP is fighting to ensure that the public doesn’t find out any more details about how it uses cellphone-tracking technology. It won’t even admit that it owns the devices.
The RCMP refers to the technology as “mobile device identifiers,” but they are more commonly known as International Mobile Subscriber Identity catchers (IMSI catchers) or by the brand name, Stingray. Depending on the model, those devices can track cellphones, log phone calls, and even intercept voice and text communications.
But the documents note that even as the devices have “garnered significant media and public attention,” the RCMP will not be answering any questions about them.
The briefing notes encourage Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to “highlight that we do not speak about specific tools or capabilities, regardless of what might be available in the public domain.” This, despite the fact that Goodale is running a national consultation on national security that is supposed to be addressing police surveillance powers.
VICE News reported last week that the RCMP was looking to open up public debate and create a “new public narrative” on the new surveillance powers they’re seeking.
While the documents, dated from September, are heavily redacted, and many of the relevant pages were withheld by the government, they note that “hitherto undisclosed specialized RCMP capabilities were made public” by the media and add that “it is critical that the RCMP protect the sensitivity of certain investigative techniques, so that they remain valuable tools for assisting investigations and maintaining public safety.”
The documents specifically mention reporting by VICE News exposed how the RCMP had extensively used the IMSI catchers to surveil a mafia outfit in Montreal, under Operation Clemenza. Motherboard broke down how the RCMP had used these devices for at least a decade.
Government lawyers fought to keep that information secret, as VICE News fought in court to have the information publicly released, and ultimately won.
The new RCMP documents highlight how the police agency works to keep that information secret.
“The RCMP safeguards classified information through stringent information security measures. At trial, police investigative tools and techniques may be further safeguarded through means such as Common Law or the Canada Evidence Act,” the documents read.
And while the documents underscore that “the RCMP must inform judges of the potential impact of investigative tools when seeking authorization, and use them in accordance with the limits set out by the court,” court records show that on at least one occasion during the court proceedings in Operation Clemenza, it failed to illuminate the court on how IMSI catchers worked.
The RCMP’s cagey position on these devices is being challenged by the federal privacy commissioner, who has launched an investigation into the RCMP’s use of the IMSI catchers. The RCMP quote the commissioner’s office as saying that the force is breaking privacy laws by “collecting personal information using ‘Stingray’ or similar devices…and, has refused to either confirm or deny that it uses [IMSI] catchers as investigative tools.”
Nevertheless, the RCMP insists in the documents that it is cooperating with the commissioner and was, as of September, preparing a response.
Information requests to the RCMP and Privacy Commissioner went unanswered as of Monday afternoon.