Police in some of Canada’s largest cities have admitted to using powerful surveillance tools that indiscriminately hoover up cell phone metadata of people in a given area—even those not under investigation by police—which privacy researchers say is a problem for Canadian civil liberties.
Nearly a year after the RCMP first acknowledged that they owned a number of cell phone surveillance devices, commonly referred to as Stingrays, and that they had been lending them to local police forces, there are still few clues to how often, and where, these devices are being used in Canada. Multiple police forces contacted by VICE News declined to discuss their use of IMSI catchers.
Ottawa’s police force said that it “does not discuss investigative techniques” and encouraged anyone interested to make a freedom of information request.
Carol McIsaac from the Halifax Regional Police said “there is a myriad of investigative techniques available to assist police during investigations, IMSI catchers being one of them,” but that “Halifax Regional Police doesn’t discuss technical equipment and/or its use in a public forum.” A spokesperson for the RCMP said, plainly, that “we probably aren’t going to give you anything.”
Police in London, Ontario denied owning any such surveillance technology while several other forces, including Vancouver police, did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News.
IMSI catchers have been criticized because they don’t target specific suspects, and instead trick every cell phone within range to connect to the device and recording the unique identifier and location of each device on police servers.
Brenda McPhail, a privacy expert with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association told VICE News that the use of IMSI catchers is “a particularly private invasive one, and it’s one that the public can reasonably demand some accountability.”
Following a two-year long battle to pry a set of documents free from the hands of the Toronto police, the Toronto Star reported that Toronto police had used an IMSI catcher in at least five different investigations since 2010.
“It’s about time. The concept of it being the worst-kept secret is pretty much right,” said McPhail. What is surprising, she said, is how flagrant their lying to media was.