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Toronto police refuse to acknowledge use of Stingray surveillance devices

Last Updated Sep 14, 2017 at 12:30 pm EST

Canada’s Privacy Commissioner is expected to release the results of its investigation into the RCMP’s use of stingrays later this week.

Stingrays are cell phone surveillance devices. They work by mimicking cell phone towers and capturing data from nearby devices. They have several different names – cell site simulators, International Mobile Subscriber Identity-catchers (IMSI- catcher) or Mobile Device Identifiers (MDIS) – but they all serve the same purpose, to surveil cell phone users in a given area.

“I think we should be concerned because as law abiding citizens we have a right to privacy and freedom and to go about where we wish to, communicate with whomever without fear of that our information is being intercepted,” says Dr. Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former Privacy Commissioner.

It’s already been established that the RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police use the devices. Correctional Services Canada has also been caught using them. And, when asked, Calgary and Winnipeg Police tell CityNews that they too use them.

Despite repeated requests, Toronto Police won’t say whether or not they employ the devices.

Last fall, Toronto Police Services suggested we file a Freedom of Information request to get a response to our queries. We did. It was filed on December 9, 2016 and while Toronto Police’s website advises applicants of the legislative requirement for a response from the organization within 30 days, they have still not responded to our request. A file number, however, has been assigned which means it was received. We called the FOI department several times to inquire about the status of our request and each time we were transferred to a voicemail message which said our call would not be returned.

“I’m completely appalled by that,” says Cavoukian upon learning of the force’s lack of response. “If they haven’t responded within the designated time frame, they are obligated to do that.”

This week, we asked TPS via email if they would confirm if they owned one of these devices or had used one in the past.

“We do not comment on investigative tools of techniques,” Mark Pugash, TPS’ Director of Communications responded via email.

“I find that completely unacceptable because at the very least, police – or whoever is doing this – they should give notice to the public so that people know that they are making use of this technology,” Cavoukian says, adding she’s very concerned about the data collected and stories about innocent bystanders who happen to be captured by the device.

Other police departments were far more forthcoming.

The Calgary Police Services has a cell site simulator,” wrote Calgary’s Emma Poole, adding it has been used 21 times to date since 2015. “The CPS site simulator used by Calgary Police Service does not intercept any private communication,” she writes, suggesting that it is likely only used to identify mobile devices or their location. “There is a significant level of judicial scrutiny when surveillance technologies are used and we do not use these technologies without first getting approval from the court.”

Winnipeg Police spokesperson Ally Slatecki confirms that the force does own a cell-site simulator. Slatecki couldn’t disclose how it is used, because “it could jeopardize active investigations and threaten public and officer safety,” but adds that “the Winnipeg Police Service respects the privacy of innocent bystanders. The collected data does not include phone numbers or any other personal identifying information or date.”

Neither Peel Regional Police or London Police Services own or use stingrays, and Edmonton Police would only say that they do not own a device. Montreal and Halifax police departments refused to disclose if they use or own the devices.

The RCMP says it owns 10 of them and only uses them to identify and track cellular devices. But some models can actually eavesdrop in on conversations and record text messages. According to a September 2015 email obtained by CityNews from the Warden of the Warkworth Institution near Brighton, that’s how the device was used to track communications of inmates, staff and visitors to the prison.

“It provides make, phone numbers and sim card numbers. It recorded all voice and text conversations,” he wrote to staff, well-after the surveillance had occurred.

That incident prompted a criminal investigation into federal prison authorities by the OPP, and is still being investigated by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Recordings obtained at the prison included conversations inside the institution, but also those that happened in parking lots and potentially, on nearby roads and farms.

Documents obtained by CityNews through an Access to Information reveal that Warkworth wasn’t the only target for these devices. An April 2015 contract awarded to a third party lists the objective as “confirm the presence of cellular phones inside institutions”, and says the contractor must perform the work at various institutions and report to various Wardens.

It does not list which sites were investigated.