Canadian Lawmakers Need to Investigate the Use of Stingray Phone Surveillance

by Jeff Wiener on November 13, 2015

As a bipartisan committee of lawmakers in the United States attempts to get a handle on the widespread use of a controversial phone surveillance technology known as Stingray, Canadians are starting to wonder as well whether or not our local law enforcement and federal agencies are deploying this same mass-surveillance device on us.

In fact, the Vancouver police made the news again this week for its refusal to disclose whether or not they deploy this controversial device, one that allows for warrantless cellular data collection by imitating a cellular tower and redirecting mobile traffic to it, allowing agencies to intercept texts and calls as well as pinpoint the location of the device.

While the actual method of intercepting cellular communication is not in question (at least not yet), what civil privacy advocates like Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver are concerned about is that, like the US, agencies are bypassing the legal system to spy on the general public, throwing down a veritable dragnet over mobile communication that indiscriminately collects information on anyone and everyone.

At its most basic, the Stingray operates as a cell-site simulator, ostensibly tricking mobile devices into thinking it is a legitimate cellular tower and thus routing all mobile traffic to it, instead of towards networks operated by legitimate wireless carriers. But it’s not just the bad guys’ phones that connect to the system; it’s everyone’s phones in that cellular area, an indiscriminate dragnet that has the potential to collect massive amounts of information of everyone, all without a warrant.

Originally intended as a counter-terrorism tool, federal and local agencies across theUnited Statesare now using this James Bond-esque surveillance system to track cell phones in cases ranging from drug investigations to tax evasion. In fact, several weeks ago investigative journalists discovered that the Internal Revenue Agency was the 13th US federal agency to have deployed the Stingray cellular dragnet.

Now as American politicians are entering the fray, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is demanding to know how Stingray is deployed and for what purpose, in an effort to determine its legality.

As that fight brews down south, we here in Canada are starting to become aware of this controversial technology as well, as earlier this year Pivot Legal Society first petitioned the Vancouver police department, but their requests were promptly denied. Having been rebuffed, the advocacy organization has now submitted an appeal to the province’s information and privacy commissioner, attempting to discover if the VPD has a Stingray surveillance device, and by what means, whether constitutional or unconstitutional, it is used.

“It’s about police being able to gather information outside of the context of the court system,” said Doug King, the Pivot lawyer who filed the information request. “It’s an incredibly frightening proposition.”

As King explains, the fact that Harris Corp, the North American disruptor, demands customers sign a non-disclosure agreement before purchasing a Stingray system is a disturbing sign of the nebulous legality of the system itself.

“I think by saying the mere acknowledgement of its existence puts it at jeopardy is kind of a confirmation of exactly the concern we have about it: that this can only be effective if nobody has any idea they’re being watched by the police,” he said.

In the end, know that if the Stingray is deployed in Vancouver, that the VPD certainly does not stand alone, and that likely every major law enforcement agency in Canada is using this technology. With that in mind, if Stingray systems are being deployed in Canada one thing is for certain: they need to operate with proper judicial oversight. Putting this kind of sophisticated mass-surveillance technology in the hands of anyone, even the best intentioned law enforcement personnel, without proper boundaries in place puts the privacy and security of all Canadians at risk.

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