RCMP lacked war­rants for St­ingray phone catch­ers cases

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - NATIONAL NEWS - JIM BRON­SKILL

OT­TAWA — The RCMP il­le­gally scooped up mo­bile phone data half a dozen times us­ing con­tro­ver­sial St­ingray de­vices, the fed­eral pri­vacy watch­dog says.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the pri­vacy com­mis­sioner’s of­fice found that the Moun­ties now re­quire a ju­di­cial war­rant for use of the tech­nol­ogy, ex­cept in emer­gen­cies.

The probe also con­cluded the RCMP was prop­erly hiv­ing off, se­cur­ing and ul­ti­mately de­stroy­ing the per­sonal in­for­ma­tion of in­no­cent peo­ple col­lected by the de­vices.

But the watch­dog chas­tised the na­tional po­lice force for ini­tially re­fus­ing to even con­firm pub­licly that it was us­ing the tech­nol­ogy, fuelling fears about un­nec­es­sary snoop­ing.

The com­mis­sioner looked into the RCMP’s use of St­ingrays in re­sponse to a com­plaint from pub­lic-in­ter­est group OpenMe­dia, which had con­cerns the Moun­ties were us­ing the de­vices to mon­i­tor large groups of peo­ple and the con­tent of their com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

In a re­port to OpenMe­dia, the watch­dog said the RCMP’s de­vices were not ca­pa­ble of in­ter­cept­ing voice com­mu­ni­ca­tions, or email or text mes­sages.

A St­ingray de­vice, some­times called an IMSI catcher, mim­ics a cel­lu­lar tower, mak­ing all nearby mo­bile phones con­nect to it. Iden­ti­fiers linked to in­di­vid­ual phones can then be used to de­ter­mine their lo­ca­tion or owner.

As a re­sult, col­lec­tion of such data through a St­ingray amounts to search and seizure, cre­at­ing a need for a court-or­dered war­rant to en­sure com­pli­ance with the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms, the pri­vacy com­mis­sioner found.

The RCMP, which has 10 of the de­vices, says St­ingrays are help­ful in high-pri­or­ity in­ves­ti­ga­tions re­lat­ing to na­tional se­cu­rity, se­ri­ous and or­ga­nized crime and other crim­i­nal of­fences in­volv­ing safety and se­cu­rity, such as kid­nap­pings.

The Moun­ties say they used the de­vices in 125 crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions from 2011 to 2016. In all but 13 of the cases, ju­di­cial war­rants were ob­tained by the RCMP or the lo­cal po­lice force the Moun­ties were as­sist­ing.

Seven cases in­volved emer­gen­cies, mean­ing no war­rant was needed. The re­main­ing six cases un­folded in 2015 dur­ing a pe­riod when the Moun­ties be­lieved — based on le­gal ad­vice — that a war­rant was no longer re­quired.

Although the Moun­ties were “op­er­at­ing in good faith,” given the le­gal ad­vice, th­ese six de­ploy­ments breached the Pri­vacy Act and the char­ter, and there­fore were “not law­fully ex­e­cuted,” the pri­vacy com­mis­sioner found.

The Moun­ties re­vis­ited the war­rant ques­tion in 2015, is­su­ing a fur­ther di­rec­tive that Oc­to­ber which said re­cently en­acted leg­is­la­tion did in­deed mean the col­lec­tion of data us­ing a St­ingray ne­ces­si­tated ju­di­cial ap­proval.

The pri­vacy com­mis­sioner’s re­port is an im­por­tant step in hold­ing the RCMP ac­count­able “for the use and ca­pa­bil­i­ties of in­va­sive mass sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies,” said Laura Tribe, OpenMe­dia’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

“Law en­force­ment agen­cies in Canada must be much more forth­com­ing with in­for­ma­tion about tech­nolo­gies that put Cana­di­ans’ pri­vacy at risk.”

OpenMe­dia also ex­pressed con­cern that po­lice need only have “rea­son­able grounds to sus­pect” that an of­fence has been, or will be, com­mit­ted in re­quest­ing a ju­di­cial war­rant to use a St­ingray.

More needs to be done to strengthen safe­guards, in­clud­ing rais­ing the thresh­old of ev­i­dence re­quired for use, Tribe said.

In April, while the pri­vacy com­mis­sioner’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion was un­der­way, the RCMP pro­vided me­dia with a tech­ni­cal brief­ing, con­firm­ing that it does own and use St­ingrays.

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