By Derrick Broze
Image Credit: TheFreeThoughtProject.com
Vancouver police have become the first Canadian police force to admit to using a controversial cellphone monitoring tool sometimes known as a Stingray.
Amidst mounting pressure from civil liberties groups, the Vancouver Police have confirmed that they have used a cell site simulator, popularly known as a “stingray,” on at least one occasion. The admission is the first of its kind by a municipal police force in Canada.
The revelation came after a year-long push by a coalition of civil rights organisations and Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society. In a recent letter to police, the groups asked Vancouver police two pointed questions: whether police had used stingray and if they would do so again.
So what is a stingray?
The Electronic Frontier Foundation describes stingrays as “a brand name of an IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) Catcher targeted and sold to law enforcement. A Stingray works by masquerading as a cell phone tower – to which your mobile phone sends signals to every 7 to 15 seconds whether you are on a call or not – and tricks your phone into connecting to it.” As a result, whoever is in possession of the Stingray can figure out who, when, and to where you are calling, the precise location of every device within the range, and with some devices, even capture the content of your conversations.
Both the Harris Corp. who manufacture the stingrays and the Federal Bureau of Investigations require police to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA) related to the use of the devices. Through these NDAs local police departments have become subordinate to Harris, and even in court cases in front of a judge, are not allowed to speak on the details of their arrangements. This has created a dangerous precedent which allows law enforcement on the local, state, and federal level to operate the devices with impunity. Americans (and Canadians) remain largely ignorant to the fact that numerous agencies are gathering their private information without a warrant.
The Vancouver police allege that they do not own a stingray, but simply requested assistance from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The RCMP approved the request based on “exigent circumstances.” The Vancouver police claim they did not operate the device and that it was only used in an attempt to locate a specific cellphone owned by a person who was reported missing.
However, even if that is true, because of the way the device works, even if the police were only searching for one cellphone they would have inadvertently gathered data from dozens if not hundreds of other phones in the area. What exactly happens to that mistakenly gathered data? No one knows and the police are not telling.
The process of obtaining the data on the stingrays was not easy. For over a year civil liberties groups battled with the police’s privacy commissioner who refused to comply with the request for data about the devices. Initially, Vancouver police claimed they did not have the device and never used one. However, as the Guardian reported, a testimony from one officer discusses personally using stingrays in 30 different cases and on 50 different suspects. Another officer said the RCMP has a large warehouse in an unknown location where the authorities test and develop stingray technology.
Thankfully, the public is slowly becoming aware of the devices and beginning to fight back. In the U.S., Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner recently signed legislation which creates new limits on how law enforcement can use surveillance devices known as cell site simulators, or “stingrays.” According to the Tenth Amendment Center, the new law will prohibit the use of stingrays except to locate or track the location of a communications device or to identify a communications device.
What do you think? Do the people of Canada have any reason to trust the authorities when they promise they have only used the devices one time?
Derrick Broze is an investigative journalist and liberty activist. He is the Lead Investigative Reporter for ActivistPost.com and the founder of the TheConsciousResistance.com. Follow him on Twitter. Derrick is the author of two books: The Conscious Resistance: Reflections on Anarchy and Spirituality and Finding Freedom in an Age of Confusion.