Vancouver Police Refuse to Say Whether They Use ‘Stingray’ Mass Surveillance Devices
Civil rights groups want to know: Are you reading our texts or nah?
A group of civil rights organizations are demanding Vancouver law enforcement reveal whether or not they use Stingray mass surveillance technology to intercept and collect phone data. So far police aren't cooperating, so the civil rights groups have called on the BC information and privacy commissioner to settle the dispute.
Last summer Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society filed an Freedom of Information request to the Vancouver Police Department asking for documents on the acquisition and use of cell site stimulator devices, also known as "Stingray" or "Kingfish" devices. Now BC's privacy commissioner is holding a formal inquiry into the case.
"They're about the size of a small suitcase," David Christopher, communications director for the internet advocacy group OpenMedia, says of the technology. "They're used to capture cell phone information from all the cell phones in a given area."
The devices work by simulating cell phone towers, tricking phones into connecting and exposing sensitive information. That can include location, device number, metadata, calls, encrypted messages and other private digital info. "It's completely indiscriminate," Christopher told VICE, "it just vacuums up the information."
OpenMedia joins Pivot, the BC Civil Liberties Association, and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association as interveners in the inquiry. The groups say these technologies by their nature collect data on law-abiding people.
"There have been indications that the way the device is used may lead to widespread infringements on citizen privacy and Charter rights," reads part of the filing to the privacy commissioner.
The VPD have so far denied Pivot's request on the grounds that disclosure would interfere with investigations. In Canada, no police forces have publicly acknowledged the use of Stingray data collection, and government officials say their use is not authorized without a warrant.
South of the border, pushes for this kind of disclosure have already found some success. Earlier this year the New York Police Department was forced to release documents showing it had used these kind of devices covertly more than 1,000 times since 2008. So far the American Civil Liberties Union has found 61 police agencies across 23 states own Stingrays.
Filings from government lawyers in a Quebec court case have also hinted at how mass surveillance tools like these are being deployed in Canada. Last November, a Quebec Superior Court judge ordered the Crown to acknowledge RCMP surveillance techniques including "mobile device identifier" technology used to eavesdrop on suspected mobsters in 2011. Quebec RCMP appealed in December, saying it would harm investigations.
"All we're doing is asking the BC privacy commissioner to get the police to come clean so we can start having a debate about these tools," Christopher said.
Vancouver police now have until April 29 to make their case to the commissioner.
Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.