RCMP used cellphone tracking technology unlawfully 6 times, says privacy watchdog

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The RCMP familiar cellphone-tracking technology in a way that was «not lawful» six times, Canada’s privacy commissioner utter in a report released Thursday. 

Mobile device identifiers (MDI) — also referred to as IMSI catchers — manipulate by mimicking a cellphone tower to interact with nearby phones and assume from the unique ID associated with the phone’s International Mobile Subscriber Sameness, or IMSI. That number can then be used to track the phone, and then to intercept text messages or calls.

Between 2011 and 2016 the RCMP employed IMSI catchers in 125 criminal investigations, 29 of which were in aid of other Canadian law enforcement agencies, the report from Daniel Therrien’s thing found. 

In the majority of cases, the RCMP obtained a warrant to use their IMSI catchers. In 13 envelopes, no warrant was obtained. Seven of those were what the RCMP elicit «exigent circumstances» — cases requiring the police to act quickly in state of affairs to «prevent the loss of life or grievous bodily harm.»  

The remaining six trunks took place during a time when the RCMP was operating high the notion that no warrant was required — between March and June 2015.

The arm-twisting made the decision to stop obtaining warrants to use the device after obtaining guidance from the National Wiretap Expert Committee (NWEC), which produces legal advice to law enforcement and prosecutors.

In June 2015, the RCMP if ever again began requiring its officers to obtain a warrant before scorning the device. ​

Therrien’s office launched an investigation into the RCMP’s use of IMSI catchers in primeval 2016, after receiving a complaint from OpenMedia, a group that stand behinds for a surveillance-free internet.

The group wanted to know whether the RCMP was abusing the devices to collect tracking data, monitor large groups of people and check voice and text communications. It also wanted clarity around whether a approval was required to use IMSI catchers, and under what circumstances.

More transparency

Up until concluding spring, the RCMP was cagey about admitting its use of IMSI catchers. In April, a months-long CBC Press release/Radio-Canada investigation revealed that someone was using IMSI catchers in the section around Parliament Hill. At the time, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale predicted Canadian agencies were not involved and that the RCMP and CSIS were considering. That investigation is ongoing.

Laura Tribe

Laura Tribe, executive director of OpenMedia, commends the privacy commissioner’s report, which comes after her group marched a complaint in March 2016 about the RCMP’s use of IMSI catchers. (CBC )

After the CBC Report/Radio-Canada report, the RCMP held a technical briefing for a select assort of reporters about IMSI catchers and how the force uses them.

Therrien hinted in his report that he is now satisfied the force is in compliance with all of Canada’s laws when pointing mobile device identifiers.

The report said the devices the RCMP manoeuvres «are not capable of intercepting private communications» like calls or text reports. The report also said any third-party information collected by the RCMP is being appropriately secured and destroyed at the end of any court proceedings.

Therrien did praise the RCMP for the access it granted his aid during his investigation, but warned the RCMP to «continue to make efforts toward openness and culpability in terms of the technologies it employs in its law enforcement activities.»

OpenMedia’s executive pilot is happy with Therrien’s report and said the force must persevere in to heed the privacy commissioner’s call for transparency.

«To make sure that when the RCMP is profiting these devices and implementing new policies that they’re really perfect and forthcoming with the public from the start — as opposed to having to go help of these really long investigative processes to get this information out,» Laura Stock said.

In a statement, RCMP acting deputy commissioner for specialized watching services Joe Oliver said, «The RCMP is committed to finding ways to display a balance between public transparency on the use of the technology and, at the same time, preserving this important tool for public safety and law enforcement purposes.»

How IMSI catchers are familiar 

The report also offers a glimpse into how the RCMP use the IMSI catchers. The significance has 10 devices, and first used one in 2005.

The RCMP will set the device up in at bit three different locations to collect data. After gathering the IMSI millions in the areas, the data is filtered to see which numbers were found in the verbatim at the same time locations as the suspect or suspects. In order to connect an IMSI number with a doubtful, another warrant is required ordering a telecom provider to give polices the name, address and phone number connected to the IMSI number.

The RCMP use the technology in a order of investigations including those relating to national security, organized lawlessness and during kidnappings. 

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