The VPD may or may not be engaging in mass cell phone surveillance
Do you know if the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) is using surveillance tools to spy on peoples’ cell phone activity? Chances are you don’t, and neither do we. That’s because the VPD has refused to confirm or deny the existence of records relating to the use of IMSI-catchers, commonly known as Stingrays, in response to an FOI filed by PIVOT Legal Society.
FIPA has joined the BC Civil Liberties Association and OpenMedia as intervenors in an appeal filed by PIVOT to the B.C. Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. We are all arguing that the records must be disclosed under FIPPA.
Stingrays are a surveillance tool used by police that mimic cell phone towers, essentially tricking cell phones to transmit their locations, identifying information, texts, emails and voice conversations. The controversial use of Stingrays by police in the United States has been well-documented.
Stingrays can’t single out a suspect’s phone and therefore gather information from all cellphones in a given area. The devices could be used to store data on citizens that could be searched at a later date, raising concerns about an increase in the already high number of cases where police break privacy rights by illegally accessing individuals’ private records.
Irrespective of concerns that Stingrays could facilitate warrantless police surveillance or other privacy rights violations, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (formerly Industry Canada) has not granted authority to security agencies to use surveillance-dragnet devices that target cellphones.
The VPD argued, under sections 8 (2) and 15 (1)(c) of FIPPA that it would “neither confirm nor deny the existence of records” regarding Stingrays on the basis that the release of records would “harm the effectiveness of investigative techniques and procedures currently used, or likely to be used, in law enforcement.”
FIPA argued that PIVOT is entitled to the information because the sections of FIPPA cited by the VPD do not apply. The VPD would have had to argue that simply disclosing the existence or nonexistence of the responsive records related to the use of Stingrays would somehow cause harm to law enforcement.
The fact, however, that Canadian police may be using Stingrays is well-publicized and could be assumed by anyone committing a crime. The level of detail in the request – do these records exist or not? – is quite different than a targeted request that would facilitate potential criminal acts, such as the type of undercover police cruisers used and their capabilities.
If this interpretation is upheld by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, it could apply to virtually any type of police equipment. The result could be not only an absurd level of secrecy within the police force, but a deficit in terms of accountability and oversight. FIPA will continue to speak out on the case due to its implications for privacy breaches and warrantless police surveillance, as well as the need for judicial oversight governing the use of this technology.