Recently, an article was written by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) summing up the ongoing debate of the highly controversial use of Stingrays by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and Canadian Police overall.

Background

A Stingray is a cellular phone surveillance device that was initially developed for the military and intelligence communities. They work by intercepting cell phone connections through communication towers in order to take data from nearby cell phones in a specific geographical area. This presents a host of privacy issues – as it “casts a net” to catch criminals while involving the public, rather than targeting a specific individual.

According to the BCCLA, the Vancouver Police Department has worked very hard to keep their use of Stingrays secret from the public. A freedom of information request was made by PIVOT Legal Society to see if the VPD had purchased Stingray devices in which the VPD amended its response. As a result, the BC Information and Privacy Commissioner’s VPD records about Stingrays were suspended.

Between the VPD’s initial lack of confirmation or denial by about holding any records on Stingray usage to an ultimate statement that they do not “have” a Stingray but may be using RCMP’s Stingrays, the truth has now come out. It has now been confirmed that an RCMP Stingray has been used by the VPD and this practice will continue to be a regular occurrence.

Legislation – or Lack Thereof

Many advocacy groups in Canada believe that police departments are failing to acknowledge that these technologies infringe on a serious violation(s) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, such as the fact that:

  1. Canadians have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty as a basic constitutional guarantee.
  2. The Charter protects everyone’s reasonable expectation of privacy in their homes, private spaces and personal information. This includes protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by police and other government authorities, who generally need a judge-approved warrant to enter your home or take actions that intervene with privacy.

The use of Stingrays blatantly subjects Canadians to gross privacy violations without their knowledge or their consent and without any recourse for justice according to OpenMedia, a Vancouver-based digital rights group. In addition to this, there are no laws governing the use of intelligence devices by the police in Canada and we do not know what is being done with collected information.

However, this is what we do know:

  • An RCMP officer has testified in 2015 that the RCMP maintains a large facility for testing Stingrays and developing methodologies for their use.
  • The RCMP first sought a general warrant for the use of Stingrays, but the conditions for deployment are laid out by the RCMP Criminal Operations. Internal authorizations often come BEFORE the warrant is even issued.
  • The RCMP denies media requests and is not being transparent about what it does with the data that has been collected and previous documents suggest that they also retain data of non-suspects.

This entire matter leaves Canadians in the dark about how information and data gathering processes are handled. As a result, the BCCLA is fighting for transparency from the police and is pushing for legislation to be changed in order to make it constitutional. They recently cited Germany’s accountability toward the use of Stingray devices as a prime example that Canada should follow.

To use a Stingray in Germany…

  • You need a warrant
  • It can only be used for serious crime investigations
  • It can only be used for geo-location purposes (not for surveilling communications)
  • There is a limit on what data can be collected from non-suspects
  • Non-suspects data CANNOT be used beyond confirming that they are not a suspect
  • Data on non-suspects must be deleted without delay
  • Police use is subject to reporting requirements and is overseen and reviewed

Mass surveillance has proven to have legitimate issues associated with it, and without any proper legislation and appropriate constraints, the way Stingray devices are currently being used appears to be at odds with the rights of Canadians.

The U.S. government has taken action to put a policy into place as of Sept 3, 2016 in order to ensure that U.S federal law enforcement officials are routinely required to have search warrants before using any kind of cell-phone tracking technology. The question remains as to when the government of Canada will act.