The Edmonton Police Service owns a controversial surveillance device called a "Stingray" that indiscriminately surveils any cellphone within its multi-kilometre range, a police spokesperson confirmed on Thursday to Motherboard.
According an emailed statement from police spokesperson Anna Batchelor, Edmonton's cops have "used the device in the past during investigations," but would not release any additional details in order to "to protect [Edmonton Police Service] operations."
Until now, the only law enforcement in the country known to use the devices was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the country's analogue to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. These suitcase-sized surveillance tools have been used in the past by the Vancouver and Toronto police, but the Vancouver police have said they borrowed the Stingray from the RCMP, and in Toronto an RCMP technician was on hand, at least in that incident.
The Edmonton police's comment to Motherboard is the first time a local police department in Canada has publicly admitted to owning a Stingray device.
"We have to assume, having made this investment, that they've used it more than once"
"We are surprised that Edmonton owns a Stingray," said Micheal Vonn, policy director of the BC Civil Liberties Association. "The picture that we had been formulating was that the expense and the training involved probably meant that the RCMP were providing a service to smaller, municipal police departments."
"We have to assume, having made this investment, that they've used it more than once," Vonn continued.
Stingray devices range in price from tens of thousands of dollars to over one hundred thousand dollars.
Also known as IMSI catchers, they force any phones within a target radius to connect to the device and transmit identifying information. When a phone is caught by a Stingray, the police obtain the phone and SIM card IDs, as well as its location and service carrier. More recent Stingray devices are capable of intercepting voice and text communications. Stingrays surveil phones indiscriminately, leading some commentators to label them as "mass surveillance" devices.
Despite the RCMP employing these devices for over a decade, the public is only learning about Canadian police's use of the controversial technology now, and mostly through public filings in criminal cases that involved Stingray surveillance.
Following the revelation that the Vancouver police had used a Stingray during an investigation, Motherboard contacted police in Halifax, Calgary, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Edmonton, asking if they had used a Stingray in the past. Assuming the answer would be "no comment," we also began the process of filing access to information requests at these departments.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of the answers in response to our initial query (other than Edmonton's) had a similar flavour.
"We don't discuss surveillance devices or investigative techniques used in our criminal investigations as it could potentially jeopardize such investigations," wrote a spokesperson for the Halifax police.
"Good afternoon Jordan, please note that the Ottawa Police does not confirm investigative techniques owned or used," was the response from Ottawa.
Motherboard has not received a response from the Calgary or Montreal police yet, and we are filing access to information requests at all of the previously mentioned departments.
"That these police departments refused to comment is what we've come to understand as the norm," said Vonn. "In a way, Edmonton should be congratulated for their candor."
While the public's focus has largely been on the RCMP when it comes to police in Canada using Stingray surveillance technology, a picture of their widespread use in local police departments across the country is slowly forming.