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The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) for the first time is publicly confirming it uses cell phone surveillance devices in investigations across Canada. RCMP Chief Supt. Jeff Adam, who is in charge of technical investigations services, said in an unprecedented technical briefing recently: “Absolutely, not everyone uses the equipment in the way the RCMP does.” “It is publicly known there is equipment out there that is not limited in its capturing of communications between devices. And so it’s a security risk when it is used in proximity to government and/or any other commercial enterprises.”
After shrouding their own use of the technology in secrecy for years, the RCMP took the unprecedented step of speaking publicly about the devices also known as Stingrays or Mobile Device Identifiers (MDIs) to address public concern amidst mounting questions about their use.
The RCMP says that MDIs have become “vital tools” deployed scores of times to identify and track mobile devices in 19 criminal investigations last year and another 24 in 2015.
In all cases but one in 2016, police got warrants. The one exception was an emergency scenario “such as a kidnapping,” said Adam.
According to cbc.ca, an IMSI catcher, another device in use, pretends to be a cellphone tower to attract nearby cell signals. When it does, it can intercept the unique ID number associated with your phone, the International Mobile Subscriber Identity, or IMSI. That number can then be used to track your phone.
Adam says the RCMP currently has 24 technicians trained and authorized to deploy the devices across Canada. He knows other police forces own and use them too, but declined to name them. He said the RCMP’s devices are restricted in their use, with software that only allows them to identify a mobile device and to potentially track the location of that phone.
“What the RCMP technology does not do is collect private communication,” Adam said. “In other words, it does not collect voice and audio communications, email messages, text messages, contact lists, images, encryption keys or basic subscriber information.”
Adam conceded that until two months ago the RCMP itself failed to get express approval to use MDIs from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED, formerly Industry Canada), the government body responsible for regulating technology that might interfere with wireless communications.
He said in recent years the law has changed to catch up with emerging technologies.
Police used to apply for a general warrant to use the technology. In 2015, Adam said there was a period of at least six months when the RCMP didn’t seek a warrant at all, acting on advice from the Department of Justice and government prosecutors.
IMSI catchers have been highly controversial for fear that hundreds of innocent device users can be swept up in the collection of cellular data. Adam said all data collected is strictly protected, isolated and reported to judges, preserved until it is no longer needed and then destroyed.
“The data, once it is seized lawfully to the judge, will be secured and locked up for criminal court purposes. It will not be accessed other than the target information,” Adam said.
He said the RCMP has been fully co-operating with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which has been investigating police use of cellphone tracking equipment in Canada. He also said police are very aware that cell MDIs can potentially disrupt mobile users’ signals and even interfere with the ability to dial 911.
Adam said the RCMP has developed protocols to ensure the MDIs are only used for a few minutes at a time to limit potential disruption for users.