Privacy commissioner investigating complaint on RCMP use of ‘stingrays’ for surveillance

Update: see previous post – March 14, 2016 Surveillance Device Used in Prison Sets Off Police Probe

The StingRay II, manufactured by Harris Corporation, is a cellular site simulator that scoops up cellphone data.
The StingRay II, manufactured by Harris Corporation, is a cellular site simulator that scoops up cellphone data. Photo by U.S. Patent and Trademark Office / AP

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Commissioner has opened an investigation into the use of International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers, otherwise known as stingrays, by law enforcement.

Canada’s privacy watchdog says it will investigate a privacy complaint about the use of “stingrays” by the RCMP.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner had planned to sit down with the RCMP in January to discuss the top-secret surveillance devices known as stingrays, the Star learned through documents obtained using the Access to Information Act.

But OPC spokesperson Valerie Lawton says the meeting was cancelled because the commissioner has opened an investigation into the use of International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers, otherwise known as stingrays, by the RCMP.

“That meeting was delayed and before it could be re-scheduled we opened an investigation into a related complaint. Therefore, the issue is now being handled via our investigations process. Due to confidentiality provisions in the Privacy Act, we are not able to offer further information at this time,” Lawton said in an email.

The RCMP did not immediately return the Star’s request for comment.

In December, privacy advocacy group OpenMedia called on the OPC to investigate the RCMP’s silence on “stingrays,” which enable police to obtain cellphone information such as identifying data, text messages and phone calls.

Stingrays electronically mimic cellphone towers, and trick cellphones within their range into connecting to them. Once a phone makes the connection, the stingray can grab data from it, including phone numbers, texts, phone calls and websites visited, in real time.

Both the RCMP and the OPP have remained silent on whether they use the devices, while in the U.S.s the F.B.I. has admitted to employing them and drafted a guidance document restricting how law enforcement should use the surveillance technology.

In December, when the Star used the Access to Information Act to request policies related to the RCMP’s use of the technology, the RCMP wrote back that those records were exempt from disclosure.

Documents from the privacy commissioner reveal that the office has been following media reports about the device for some time, and had hoped to get clarity from the RCMP.

The privacy commissioner is already conducting an investigation into Correctional Services Canada for the alleged use of stingray technology at Warkworth Institute.

“We have not been made aware by the RCMP of their use of the technology,” OPC spokesperson Tobi Cohen wrote in an email to another media outlet, obtained by the Star using the Access to Information Act.

“If they are using this technology, we expect to be consulted.”

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