How police are keeping tabs on cellphones using controversial surveillance technology

   
Published May 22, 2019 3:25 p.m. ET
Updated May 22, 2019 3:32 p.m. ET
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Most Canadians own a cellphone these days; the devices keep us connected to a world of information that is at our fingertips.

But what many cellphone users don’t realize is that police are paying attention as well, and in some cases, they are using sophisticated technology that mines cellphones for digital data, but they’re not saying what they’re doing with it.

Law enforcement is reluctant to share details with the public about its impact, or even admit they’re doing it, because they don’t want to tip their hand, and its use remains controversial.

Such is the case in Halifax where, after a wait of nearly three years, municipal police are now publicly admitting they use cellphone-mining technology.

Originally requested in August 2016, CTV News was told by Halifax Regional Police they don’t publicly discuss their investigative techniques, but will pursue all avenues necessary that conform to “required judicial authorizations.”

A short time later, a request for information on cellphone surveillance devices was put into the Information Access and Privacy administrator with the Halifax Regional Police.

That request was denied on several grounds including that “disclosure could reasonably be expected to harm the effectiveness of investigative techniques or procedures currently used…”

A complaint was then filed by CTV News with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for Nova Scotia.

After a request for information from that office, Halifax Regional Police admitted in a very brief response that they do use Stingray devices.

Here’s how the technology works:

Cellphones are designed to connect to the nearest cell phone tower. Cell-site simulators, also known as IMSI catchers, or by brand names like Stingray, trick cellphones into thinking it’s the nearest tower. When phones connect to the Stingray, police can gather locations, and unique identifying information.

This same technology is said to have the capacity to mine other information, including texts, email, and phone calls, but police say they’re not doing that.

And, it's not just from one phone; information is scooped up from every cellphone in the area, whether or not it is relevant to the investigation at hand.

Halifax Regional Police say they don’t own their own Stingray, but get it from a partner agency. They won’t say which one, but it’s most likely the RCMP.

Janet Austin, an associate law professor at the University of New Brunswick and a former prosecutor, says law enforcement have to adapt to be able to enforce laws in the digital era.

“So, from that point of view, you can sort of see this sort of technology is important for the police to be able to keep up with what's happening, and be able to enforce our laws," Austin says.

But, she contends, police do need to protect privacy.

“These days, our cellphones contain much, perhaps almost all of our private lives, and we need to be able to protect that from surveillance by the state, and if the state is collecting data, we need to know what they're collecting and what they're doing with it," she adds.   

After identifying a cellphone of interest, Halifax police say they will obtain the subscriber information by warrant to delve deeper. But, law enforcement isn't in the habit of sharing surveillance information unless it's with the courts; rarely, if ever, does the use of Stingray technology see the light of day.

Privacy lawyer David Fraser says he isn’t seeing evidence that police are obtaining warrants or production orders or authorizations from the courts to use Stingray technology.

“Deploying mass surveillance technology without supervision, while they might be doing it in a proper sort of way right now, we don’t know that because we don’t have that supervision and we don’t have that transparency,” Fraser says.

While moving cell-site simulators or Stingrays out of the shadows remains an elusive goal for privacy pundits, Fraser believes Nova Scotia Justice Minister Mark Furey could play a key role.

Furey, a former RCMP officer, says he isn’t about to set up a civilian oversight panel, and he maintains there are checks against potential abuse.

“It gathers the identity of individuals, but it’s one step in advancing matters that would require judicial authority, either a warrant or judicial order for purposes of using information gleaned from the use of that technology,” Furey says.

Still, he says he is mindful of concerns about safeguarding a citizen’s privacy rights.

“I think there’s more work to do to understand what this piece of technology does, and what the limitations of that piece of technology are, to ensure that it doesn’t infringe on the rights and privacies of individuals who use cellular phones,” the minister said.

Out on the West Coast, Rob Creasser has seen his fair share of crime. Much like Furey, he’s another former Mountie, with 28 years on the job.

Speaking to CTV News from his home in Kamloops, B.C., he says police are already trying to keep the lid on what he calls a “boiling pot.”

"What we have to realize here is that if we want to be really effective in terms of dealing with major drug conspiracies, Amber Alerts, kidnappings, those kinds of things, this type of technology aids in that,” Creasser says.

The former Mountie says he sees both sides of the issue, and understands why people would be leery of this technology.

"There are no constraints on what technology criminal enterprises can obtain,” he says. “A, they have the money to purchase it, and B, whatever laws are in place are typically disregarded in any event.”

Even so, Fraser argues the ends don’t justify the means.

"Civilian oversight of police activities generally needs to be enhanced, and investigative techniques are a significant part of that,” he says. “It's not just whether they buy armoured vehicles or carbines, it's also whether they deploy intrusive technology against citizens."

CTV News once again approached Halifax Regional Police about what happens with all the data scooped up when a Stingray is deployed, but was told they won’t discuss investigative techniques other than when required as part of a court process.


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