Tech by VICE

A Canadian Prison Was Spying on Non-Inmates and Recording Their Calls and Texts

This is not good.

by Jordan Pearson
Sep 24 2015, 7:59pm

Image: Flickr/Michael Coghlan

A Canadian prison has been spying on its guards, prisoners, and anybody passing by the facility by recording their cellphone voice and text conversations, a leaked email obtained by CityNews reveals.

Warkworth, Ontario prison warden Scott Thompson sent an email to the prison staff on September 17, 2015 that reveals the full scope of the surveillance staff and inmates were, and may still be, under. The device in use at the prison, which is not named in the email, "provides make, phone numbers, and device ID," and "recorded all voice and text conversations." The device was sent to the prison by Correctional Services Canada after an inmate died in January, Thompson wrote.

"Unfortunately, I knew that by trying to intercept what the inmates were doing, I would also be provided with information about cellular devices being used in non-inmate areas," Thompson wrote.

"There are obvious and serious privacy concerns."

It's unclear what kind of device was used to intercept phone communications, but several privacy experts Motherboard reached out to, including Christopher Soghoian and Nathan Wessler at the ACLU, noted that it is likely part of a class of devices meant to emulate cell phone towers and identify phones. It was unclear to all whether the device was passively monitoring inmates or doing so actively—sending out a signal and forcing any phone in the area to respond—like the Stingray devices used by American law enforcement.

The Canadian government has been notoriously tight-lipped about whether or not it also uses uses similar technology to monitor citizens.

"We do sell products to the Canadian government," said John Demeter, CEO of British Columbia-based Global Security Solutions, a company that sells passive cell phone interception technology. "But this particular product, I cannot confirm that we sold it to them." Demeter added that saying so would sour the company's relationship with the government.

Watch more from Motherboard: Prison, Part 1

Whatever the exact technology used actually was, Wessler said over the phone, is incidental to the invasion of correction officers' privacy, as well as anybody potentially driving by the facility. Motherboard reached the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada via email for comment, and this piece will be updated if we receive a response.

"It doesn't seem meaningful to distinguish between a Stingray and a fully emulated cell phone tower," Wessler said. "To the extent that these devices are probing the phones of people who are not incarcerated, there are obvious and serious privacy concerns."

It is unclear whether the device is still in use at the Warkworth prison, or if similar devices are currently being used by other prisons in Canada. Regardless, it looks like Canadians have yet another potential privacy nightmare to worry about.

UPDATE: Tobi Cohen, a spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC), told Motherboard that although government agencies must conduct privacy assessments for all new programs that raise privacy issues, the OPC was not aware of Correctional Services Canada's (CSC) use of cellphone interception technology . The Office will be following up with CSC. The OPC's full statement is below.

"We are certainly aware of the media reports and it does raise privacy concerns.

I am not aware of any consultations or Privacy Impact Assessments (PIA) from CSC regarding this matter. As you may know, PIAs are used to identify the potential privacy risks of new or redesigned federal government programs or services. They also help eliminate or reduce those risks to an acceptable level.

Virtually all government institutions must conduct PIAs for new or redesigned programs and services that raise privacy issues. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner may provide comments to departments before or during the development of PIAs to ensure privacy issues are clearly understood. The OPC can offer advice and suggest solutions to potential privacy risks. Government departments should submit final PIA reports to the OPC before they implement programs or services.

We will be following up with CSC to find out more about this initiative."