Police in Windsor, Waterloo, Durham Region and Niagara Region in Ontario participated in a clandestine program to deploy unknown surveillance equipment across the province, bringing to eight the number of police forces known to be involved with the program, documents obtained by VICE News show.
The documents, obtained through a freedom of information request, shed more light on the Canada-wide practice of provinces providing grant money to local police forces to supplement their budgets, and how some of that money is used to pay for secret surveillance equipment.
Grant agreements show that police in Windsor received $87,846 and the Niagara Regional Police Service received $81,976 to cover costs related to the Provincial Electronic Surveillance Equipment Deployment Program (PESEDP), an initiative to roll out unspecified spying gear in cities across Ontario, for the period from March 2017 to March 2018.
A separate invoice shows that Waterloo police had an active service contract with JSI Telecom, a company that provides data collection and analysis services for police and intelligence agencies around the world, through March 2018.
Police in Durham Region received $81,976, while police in Waterloo received an unspecified amount of funds to cover costs of the program during the same period.
Brenda McPhail, Director of the Privacy, Technology and Surveillance Project for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, finds the secrecy surrounding police’s acquisition and use of surveillance gear troubling.
"The absolute minimum we should be expecting from our police when it comes to invasive surveillance, is sufficient public disclosure."
“The fact that we have secret processes to buy secret technology raises really serious concerns for civil liberties,” McPhail said in a phone call.
“The absolute minimum we should be expecting from our police when it comes to invasive surveillance, is sufficient public disclosure [...] to be able to tell whether or not the tools are truly necessary, whether their use is proportionate, and what safeguards are in place [for their use].”
“We can’t know any of these things if everything happens in secret.”
The Waterloo Regional Police Service and the Niagara Regional Police Service both confirmed in emails that they participated in the PESEDP. Each told VICE News that the program ended in 2016. The Windsor Police Service declined to answer questions. Durham Regional Police Service and JSI Telecom did not respond to requests for comment.
Niagara police spokesperson Stephanie Sabourin wrote in an email that the equipment deployed under the program was used under Section 6 of Canada’s Criminal Code, which allows police to intercept personal communications. Sabourin said that Niagara police do not use “mobile device identifying equipment” as part of the program.
Previously, Motherboard reported that police in Toronto, York Region, Peel Region and Ottawa received hundreds of thousands of dollars in provincial grants to cover expenses related to secret spying equipment. At the time, police in those cities refused to answer questions about the program.
A subsequent Freedom of Information request made to Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General revealed that the PESEDP is funded by Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario (CISO), an arm of the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services; that the program involved at least nine unidentified police agencies; and that officers involved with the program were trained in “lawful access” techniques, a euphemism for the interception of personal communications.
Law enforcement surveillance practices in Canada have come under scrutiny in recent years as details about police’s use of powerful spying equipment become public.
In March, the Toronto Police Service (TPS) was forced to admit its use of IMSI catchers, devices that imitate a cellphone tower in order to intercept the signals of all mobile phones being used in a certain area, during investigations. Previously, TPS had denied using the technology.
The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), the RCMP, and police in Calgary and Winnipeg have all admitted to owning and using IMSI catchers. Police in Halifax and Edmonton have also confirmed their use of the devices, though Edmonton police later walked back their claim.
McPhail said that secrecy surrounding police surveillance is an “ongoing problem” in Canada and pointed to new regulations in some US jurisdictions regarding the use of surveillance technology that Canada should consider adopting.
“Oakland, California, recently passed [legislation] that mandates transparency and accountability for every surveillance technology proposal made by police in that city, including [an assessment] of how it would impact local communities, including racialized communities and immigrant communities… That’s a model I think we should be looking to in Canada.”
McPhail said that the public needs to be aware of what surveillance tools are being used by police.
“We don’t know who gets caught up in the net of surveillance […] If we don’t know what the tools are, and we don’t know what safeguards are in place regarding their use, then we can’t know that they’re only being used to investigate serious criminality.”
Cover image via Flickr by Richard Minton