Open Media Calls for Greater Transparency on RCMP Use of Stingray Dragnet Surveillance

RCMP have been using dragnet stingray surveillance for years. Open Media is calling for better transparency for the practice.

It’s probably not something you think about. You are out and about on the streets carrying out your normal every day business. You see a nearby bench and feel like taking a quick little rest. After sitting down, you decide to check your cell phone. As luck would have it, you have a decent connection and you check your messages. You reply to some texts from family members, check some posts on Facebook, watch a quick little video, then check the time. Guess you should be getting going. So, you put your cell phone away and start making your way home again.

It seems like a pretty normal scenario. Maybe you did something similar in your day to day routines. What you may not know is that, at the time, that random tower you connect to may have been operated by the RCMP. The purpose is to capture as much personal information as possible off of you before sending the signal to the real tower. Did the RCMP have a warrant on you? No. Was there suspicion you did anything wrong? No. Yet, the RCMP may have collected a whole bunch of personal information without your knowledge. It’s a form of surveillance known as dragnet surveillance. The RCMP, in this case, is capturing everything regardless of suspicion.

This is, of course, an activity that is hugely controversial as it generally appears to be a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Specifically, we are referring to the following:

Search or seizure

8 Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.

The question is, what gave the RCMP the OK to start using things like Stingray devices? Nothing that we can tell. They just decided to up and do it. Call it a sort of beg for forgiveness later rather than ask for permission now type scenario. By all accounts, RCMP have been using these devices for years. In fact, back in 2017, we wrote a report on the controversial use of these devices. At the time, those devices were used to capture information near federal government buildings, raising concerns about national security over and above personal privacy. The story died down and the RCMP, apparently, kept using these devices.

Canadian digital rights organization, Open Media, is calling for greater transparency of RCMP use of these devices. From Open Media:

It was recently reported that Canada’s national police force, the RCMP, continues to use dragnet surveillance devices without a finalized policy in place, despite having had nearly 20 years to complete one. As of right now, it’s entirely unclear if the mass surveillance practices of police forces across the country are in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The surveillance devices in question are called Cell Site Simulators (CSS) and are capable of connecting to every cell phone within a 2 km radius, which in turn reveals the device ID information and location data of everyone in the surrounding area.

An official, finalized policy from the RCMP would ensure that these secretive surveillance tactics are operating in accordance with Canada’s laws. It’s very concerning that the RCMP has failed to produce one in nearly 20 years of operational use – especially considering their less-than-honest history.

The history of CSS devices in Canada reveals law enforcement collusion in an attempt to conceal the use of indiscriminate, mass surveillance devices. For more than ten years, the police were able to use these devices to collect the personal information of people in Canada in complete secrecy.

The use of technologies like CSS devices must happen transparently and in compliance with Canada’s laws, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Having a finalized, official policy in place would help ensure that these devices are operating in compliance with our rights.

In response to recent reporting on the RCMP’s failure to finalize a policy, a representative of the RCMP cited “changes in capability” of the CSS devices as a complicating factor, suggesting that the devices might now be capable of collecting more than just device ID information and location data. This is all the more reason for a final policy to be in place.

Open Media, in response, has a petition for Canadians to sign to demand greater accountability and transparency.

Indeed, it is hugely problematic that the RCMP refuses to come clean about the use of such surveillance technology. With an absolute lack of accountability, how do Canadian’s know that such surveillance techniques aren’t being abused? We may never really know. As long as these surveillance techniques continue to be employed, abuse could happen today and Canadian’s won’t even know about it. For all you know, your political opinion could be what sparks the RCMP to monitor you more closely. Does it really matter what that opinion is? Transparency could go a long way because, right now, the public has a number of reasons not to trust the RCMP at the moment.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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