The 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 alleged use of “stingrays” by the RCMP.
Office of the Privacy Commissioner spokesperson Valerie Lawton said the organization has opened an investigation into the RCMP’s refusal to admit whether or not it usesthe surveillance technology known as stingrays, formally called International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers.
During the course of an investigation, the privacy commissioner typically determines if any privacy laws have been broken and makes recommendations on future policy.
The complaint was filed by Laura Tribe, a digital rights specialist for free speech advocate OpenMedia, after she read a story in the Star about the RCMP’s refusal to answer questions about the devices.
“If these invasive technologies are not in use, then these agencies should have no problem confirming that their surveillance activities remain within the confines of the law. If these StingRay technologies are being used in Canada however, the public has a right to know,” said her complaint, filed in December.
The RCMP did not immediately return the Star’s request for comment.
The Mounties have remained tight-lipped about the tech, which mimics a cellphone tower and collects information such as identifying data, text messages and phone calls from people’s cellphones. The device casts a wide net that doesn't distinguish between suspects in criminal cases and ordinary citizens.
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. The OPP also wouldn’t comment on whether they used the devices.
Meanwhile in the U.S., the FBI has admitted to employing them and drafted a guidance document restricting how law enforcement should use the surveillance technology.
Documents obtained by the Star using the Access to Information Act reveal the privacy commissioner had planned to sit down with RCMP in January to discuss stingrays. But Lawton said the meeting was cancelled once the commissioner decided to launch the investigation.
“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 commissioner has been following media reports about the device for some time and had hoped to get clarity from the RCMP, documents show.
“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.”
The privacy commissioner is already conducting an investigation into Correctional Service Canada for the alleged use of stingray technology at Warkworth Institution in Campbellford, Ont.
Tribe told the Star she got word last week that the privacy commissioner would investigate her complaint. OpenMedia is also involved in the B.C. access and privacy watchdog’s probe of the Vancouver Police Department’s failure to respond to requests on the subject.
“These are really dangerous tools that can be used to invade the privacy of tens of thousands of Canadians at a time,” Tribe said. “I’m not saying there’s never a time or place for them, but we can’t even begin to have that conversation until we know that they’re being used, or what those circumstances are.”