For years, Canadian police have successfully kept their use of controversial and indiscriminate surveillance devices called IMSI catchers a secret.
Today, for the first time, and thanks to a year-long effort by a coalition of civil rights organizations and Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society, we know that at least one local police force in Canada has used an IMSI catcher, also referred to as a "Stingray": the Vancouver PD.
According to the BC Civil Liberties Association, which posted a blog announcing the news on Monday, the Vancouver police used an IMSI catcher once, nearly a decade ago, and without a warrant.
"We sent a letter asking the Vancouver police if they'd ever used one of the RCMP's IMSI catchers, and if they would again," said Micheal Vonn, policy director for the BCCLA. "The answer to both questions was yes."
The police force claimed that the surveillance device was used under "exigent circumstances," Vonn said, meaning that there was an imminent threat that couldn't wait for a warrant to be dealt with. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the Vancouver police maintained in May of this year that they possess no records relating to their use of IMSI catchers.
"We imagine that this is mirrored in municipal police departments throughout the country"
"We would not be the least surprised if other departments were using Stingrays," said Vonn. "We imagine that this is mirrored in municipal police departments throughout the country."
These revelations come after a year-long battle to find out if the Vancouver police have used IMSI catchers. At first, the police would not confirm or deny that they used the devices, which sparked an inquiry by the province's privacy commissioner. That inquiry reportedly folded earlier this summer, leaving the BCCLA without answers.
The BCCLA is not releasing the Vancouver police's letter or elaborating on the specifics of how the device was used, Vonn said, in order to prevent criminals from gaining an edge on the police.
Previously, Motherboard reported that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police—this country's analogue to the FBI in the US—has been using IMSI catchers for more than a decade, and surveilled tens of thousands of innocent Canadians without their knowledge.
IMSI catchers are suitcase-sized devices that simulate cell towers and force every phone within range, which may be several kilometres, to connect. Even the most basic of these devices then skim all kinds of data from the phone, such as the unique identifiers of the phone and SIM card, as well as its location and carrier.
Some newer IMSI catchers are even capable of capturing voice and text communications, and when paired with specialized software, may even send messages that appear to be from the owner of the phone, but were actually sent by police.
Since these devices are indiscriminate, thousands of phones may be simultaneously surveilled when they are deployed at full range in a bustling city. In the court case that led to the revelation that the RCMP has been using IMSI catchers for a decade, counsel argued that "it is clear that, at times, thousands of innocent third parties" were surveilled.
Now, we know that IMSI catchers have not only been used by Canada's federal police force, but by at least one local department.
And since the use of the controversial surveillance technology is only just coming to light, nobody should be surprised if it's revealed that more local departments are spying on citizens' phones, too.