Toronto Police Chief Bragged About Monitoring Protesters and Anonymous Is Pissed

Even if Blair's spying strategy is legally defensible, it doesn't mean it's the type of police tactic that rings true ethically.

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Mar 19 2015, 4:05pm

In 2013, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair stood in front of a room of police chiefs in Philadelphia to discuss his force's "gold standard" when it came to monitoring social media.

The purpose of Blair's keynote was to, apparently, sell his cops' ability to efficiently crack down on a protest—using information provided to them via social media surveillance.

In his speech, Blair bragged about the Toronto Police Service's (TPS) ability to monitor an Israel/Palestine demonstration in 2012, which happened on the same day as Toronto's Grey Cup celebration.

Apparently, this collision of public hootenanny presented a particular policing challenge.

Blair described his force's process for monitoring political activists that day, while standing at a podium in what appears to be a nondescript conference room. He explained that they were monitoring social media "within the command centre" by employing a technique called "geofencing" that lets them "determine the location" of conversations happening on Twitter along with who's having those conversations in the first place.

He continued to say: "We were very fortunate because there was... an individual in that demonstration who was the primary organizer... He was using social media very effectively to organize that demonstration. He was sending out tweets. He was giving his location. He had not turned off geofencing capability of his own device. So we were able to monitor his location... He'd in fact become our very best intelligence officer on the scene."

Despite Blair giving this speech close to two years ago, the footage has been viewed less than 150 times on YouTube. It was originally filmed by independent journalist Kenneth Lipp, and has resurfaced thanks to a new video from the hacktivist collective Anonymous that was published earlier today.

VICE contacted the Toronto Police Service for comment on this video, and we were told by their Director of Corporate Communications Mark Pugash: "Toronto Police Service pays attention to a wide range of public domain information including radio, television, newspapers, websites and social media. We do that on a daily basis."

When asked if they are required to abide by any particular legal framework when monitoring social media for information on protests, Pugash wrote in an email: "Reading newspapers, listening to the radio, watching television, surfing the net, looking at Twitter and Facebook and using search engines do not require a legal framework."

And as for whether or not this type of monitoring is a violation of privacy, Pugash wrote: "Reading newspapers, listening to the radio, watching television, surfing the net, looking at Twitter and Facebook and using search engines cannot be seen as violating anyone's privacy."

We also reached out to the Anonymous team that republished Blair's comments earlier today, and asked how they hope their video will inform Canadians about the way our police monitor protests.

In an encrypted chat room, an Anon member wrote: "Canadians at protests should consider becoming a lot more tech savvy. Turn off your geolocation info; it's not hard to do. Learn to use Red Phone (Android) or Signal (for iPhone). Text Secure and Signal give you options for encrypted text messaging.

"Always keep your options open for old-fashioned person to person communication. There are also increasing options for catching when police are using surveillance tech. Those most comfortable with programming and tech can help out a ton in these areas."

As for whether or not this type of monitoring is okay in the eyes of the law, VICE spoke with Iain MacKinnon, a lawyer who specializes in privacy rights, who told us that the legal test comes down to whether or not users have a reasonable expectation to privacy. According to MacKinnon, this is a murky expectation at best in the case of tweets that are geotagged.

In an email, MacKinnon wrote: "People can turn off their GPS data so that it is not easily available through monitoring software. So it is difficult to argue that you have a reasonable expectation of privacy if you choose not to turn off that function of your phone. And if the purpose in gathering the information is to monitor crowds for potential criminal activity, that would also undermine an expectation of privacy."

But even if Blair's spying strategy is legally defensible, it doesn't mean it's the type of police tactic that rings true ethically.

VICE contacted Christopher Parsons, a cybersurveillance researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, to discuss this line between legality and ethics.

"The legality of monitoring public communications isn't entirely black and white... but it doesn't strike me that what [Bill Blair described] was necessarily illegal," said Parsons in an emailed statement. "That authorities are monitoring public communications, where authorities are not considered to be a 'member of the audience,' really gets to the heart of many contemporary privacy debates: under what conditions is something private or not?"

Parsons said the legal situation is similar to the context of a barroom.

"Bars are public places," he said. "People talk loudly and are overheard by strangers at neighbouring tables. But we have a privacy-based expectation that when we speak to our friends or colleagues the people three tables down aren't just overhearing (they might have to if I'm being loud!) but recording the communication for purposes I wouldn't approve of."

VICE also reached out to the Ontario Privacy Commissioner's office, but they declined to comment on this story.

Indeed, the issue of police monitoring social media comes down to whether or not open source information, i.e. publicly sourced data that can be found simply through Google or Twitter or Facebook searches, is fair game for law enforcement. Open source information is certainly a valuable tool for journalism, for example, which often leads to important stories being broken.

And perhaps, the public's safety has been legitimately defended from time to time using data taken from open networks. Otherwise the CIA might not have founded a whole division called the Open Source Center; which provides an intelligence service to government employees that exists largely to scrape data from foreign social media profiles.

There is already dwindling support in Canada for new anti-terror legislation that will increase law enforcement and government spying powers. And after this week's news that CSIS helped the government monitor Northern Gateway pipeline protesters, this type of police tactic is unlikely to be accepted as a sound public safety measure.

Especially considering that this past weekend, demonstrations against the proposed anti-terror laws were launched across the country, which could have been monitored using these same tactics. So really, news of Blair's love affair with open source intelligence could not have come at a better time.

After noting this political climate, VICE asked Anonymous about how Canadians should interpret the Toronto Police's strategy of scanning social media for information on protests. We were told: "Canadians should be alarmed, as we think they are, that police are not only doing the kind of things on display in our video but also think they need even more room to snoop on activists, petty criminals, and just everyday people.

"We're all way behind when it comes to being spied on by police and Canadian intelligence agencies. It doesn't have to stay that way."

Follow Patrick McGuire on Twitter.

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