Technology, Thoughts & Trinkets

Touring the digital through type

Year: 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Pleading the Case: How the RCMP Fails to Justify Calls for New Investigatory Powers

'RCMP' by POLICEDRIVER2 (CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/sEM7W5

‘RCMP’ by POLICEDRIVER2 (CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/sEM7W5

A pair of articles by the Toronto Star and CBC have revealed a number of situations where the authors report on why authorities may be right to ask for new investigatory powers. A series of cases, combined with interviews with senior RCMP staff, are meant to provide some insight into the challenges that policing and security agencies sometimes have when pursuing investigations. The articles and their associated videos are meant to spur debate concerning the government’s proposal that new investigatory powers are needed. Such powers include a mandatory interception capability, mandatory data retention capability, mandatory powers to compel decryption of content, and easy access to  basic subscriber information.

This post does not provide an in-depth analysis of the aforementioned proposed powers. Instead, it examines the specific ‘high priority’ cases that the RCMP, through a pair of journalists, has presented to the public. It’s important to recognize that neither the summaries nor underlying documents have been made available to the public, nor have the RCMP’s assessments of their cases or the difficulties experienced in investigating them been evaluated by independent experts such as lawyers or technologists. The effect is to cast a spectre of needing new investigatory powers without providing the public with sufficient information to know and evaluate whether existing powers have been effectively exercised. After providing short commentaries on each case I argue that the RCMP has not made a strong argument for the necessity or proportionality of the powers raised by the government of Canada in its national security consultation.

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Dissecting CSIS’ Statement Concerning Indefinite Metadata Retention

PR? by Ged Carrol (CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/6jshtz

PR? by Ged Carrol (CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/6jshtz

In this brief post I debunk the language used by CSIS Director Michel Coulombe in his justification of CSIS’s indefinite data retention program. That program involved CSIS obtaining warrants to collect communications and then, unlawfully, retaining the metadata of non-targeted persons indefinitely. This program was operated out of the Operational Data Analysis Centre (ODAC). A Federal Court judge found that CSIS’ and the Department of Justice’s theories for why the program was legal were incorrect: CSIS had been retaining the metadata, unlawfully, since the program’s inception in 2006. More generally, the judge found that CSIS had failed to meet its duty of candour to the court by failing to explain the program, and detail its existence, to the Court.

The public reactions to the Federal Court’s decision has been powerful, with the Minister of Public Safety being challenged on CSIS’s activities and numerous mainstream newspapers publishing stories that criticize CSIS’ activities. CSIS issued a public statement from its Director on the weekend following the Court’s decision, which is available at CSIS’ website. The Federal Court’s decision concerning this program is being hosted on this website, and is also available from the Federal Court’s website. In what follows I comprehensively quote from the Director’s statement and then provide context that, in many cases, reveals the extent to which the Director’s statement is designed to mislead the public.

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Canada’s National Security Consultation: Digital Anonymity & Subscriber Identification Revisited… Yet Again

Phone by Any & Carrie Coleman

Phone by Any & Carrie Coleman (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/4jtzjb

Last month, Public Safety Canada followed through on commitments to review and consult on Canada’s national security framework. The process reviews powers that were passed into law following the passage of Bill C-51, Canada’s recent controversial anti-terrorism overhaul, as well as invite a broader debate about Canada’s security apparatus. While many consultation processes have explored expansions of Canada’s national security framework, the current consultation constitutes the first modern day attempt to explore Canada’s national security excesses and deficiencies. Unfortunately, the framing of the consultation demonstrates minimal direct regard for privacy and civil liberties because it is primarily preoccupied with defending the existing security framework while introducing a range of additional intrusive powers. Such powers include some that have been soundly rejected by the Canadian public as drawing the wrong balance between digital privacy and law enforcement objectives, and heavily criticized by legal experts as well as by all of Canada’s federal and provincial privacy commissioners

The government has framed the discussion in two constituent documents, a National Security Green Paper and an accompanying Background Document. The government’s framings of the issues are highly deficient. Specifically, the consultation documents make little attempt to explain the privacy and civil liberties implications that can result from the contemplated powers. And while the government is open to suggestions on privacy and civil liberties-enhancing measures, few such proposals are explored in the document itself. Moreover, key commitments, such as the need to impose judicial control over Canada’s foreign intelligence agency (CSE) and regulate the agency’s expansive metadata surveillance activities, are neither presented nor discussed (although the government has mentioned independently that it still hopes to introduce such reforms). The consultation documents also fail to provide detailed suggestions for improving government accountability and transparency surrounding state agencies’ use of already-existent surveillance and investigative tools. 

In light of these deficiencies, we will be discussing a number of the consultation document’s problematic elements in a series of posts, beginning with the government’s reincarnation of a highly controversial telecommunication subscriber identification power.

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IMSI Catcher Report Calls for Transparency, Proportionality, and Minimization Policies

imsi-catcher-coverThe Citizen Lab and CIPPIC released a report, Gone Opaque? An Analysis of Hypothetical IMSI Catcher Overuse in Canada, which examined the use of devices that are commonly referred to as ‘cell site simulators’, ‘IMSI Catchers’, ‘Digital Analyzers’, or ‘Mobile Device Identifiers’, and under brand names such as ‘Stingray’, DRTBOX, and ‘Hailstorm’. IMSI Catchers are a class of of surveillance devices used by Canadian state agencies. They enable state agencies to intercept communications from mobile devices and are principally used to identify otherwise anonymous individuals associated with a mobile device and track them.

Though these devices are not new, the ubiquity of contemporary mobile devices, coupled with the decreasing costs of IMSI Catchers themselves, has led to an increase in the frequency and scope of these devices’ use. Their intrusive nature, as combined with surreptitious and uncontrolled uses, pose an insidious threat to privacy.

This report investigates the surveillance capabilities of IMSI Catchers, efforts by states to prevent information relating to IMSI Catchers from entering the public record, and the legal and policy frameworks that govern the use of these devices. The report principally focuses on Canadian agencies but, to do so, draws comparative examples from other jurisdictions. The report concludes with a series of recommended transparency and control mechanisms that are designed to properly contain the use of the devices and temper their more intrusive features.

The report is structured across four sections:

  • Section One provides an overview of the technical capabilities of IMSI Catchers.
  • Section Two focuses on civil society and journalists’ efforts to render transparent how IMSI Catchers are used.
  • Section Three examines the regulation of IMSI Catchers and avenues towards lawful regulation of their use.
  • Section Four sets out best practices that should be incorporated into a framework governing IMSI Catcher use.

In more detail, Section One provides an overview of the technical capabilities of IMSI Catchers. The report principally focuses on how the devices can be used in ‘identification mode’, where they intercept digital numbers that are unique to mobile devices. IMSI Catchers exploit weaknesses in the design of mobile communications systems to induce mobile devices to transmit these unique numbers that, typically, are only sent to telecommunications carriers. From a privacy perspective, the report argues that IMSI Catchers are inherently intrusive: by design, they capture mobile identifiers from all phones in range, leading to significant collateral privacy impact that can affect the privacy of thousands of non-targets for each individual legitimate target.

Section Two focuses on transparency efforts associated with IMSI Catchers, and how states have routinely sought to prevent information about IMSI Catchers from reaching the public record. After highlighting some of the hard-fought successes to bring documents to the public record in the United States, in particular, the report examines comparable efforts to uncover IMSI Catchers’ use in Canada and these efforts’ comparative successes and failures. In doing so, a case analysis is conducted where the Toronto Police Services Board successfully (and inappropriately) prevented documents from becoming public. The report critiques a number of the justifications that are frequently advanced by state agencies seeking to prevent information related to IMSI Catchers from becoming public. Furthermore, it argues that providing some details on IMSI Catcher use will not undermine the investigative utility of the devices, and that there is substantial public interest that should compel authorities to disclose documents regardless of whether they affect investigative utility. Furthermore, disclosure of such documents is needed to evaluate whether the possession of the devices is inconsistent with the Radiocommunications Act, the Privacy Act, and perhaps the Charter. Equally seriously, refusing to officially acknowledge IMSI Catcher use in the face of a growing body of documents demonstrating their use threatens to undermine public confidence that the devices are being used lawfully and in a manner that is proportionate and minimized their impact on non-targeted members of the public.

Section Three examines the regulation of IMSI Catchers and avenues towards the lawful authorization of their use. After surveying German and American regulatory processes to understand gaps in the Canadian context, the report explores Canada’s ambitious statutory framework for electronic surveillance. Doing so explicates the legal avenues state agencies can exercise to authorize their use of IMSI Catchers. This section reveals how a range of overlapping powers might apply to IMSI Catcher authorization, and that this ambiguity might let agencies deploy IMSI Catchers using powers offering minimal privacy protection. The section concludes by examining the Charter implications of IMSI Catcher uses, and rejects possible justifications of IMSI Catcher deployment which lack prior judicial authorization. A series of safeguards and conditions on the use of IMSI Catchers, such that their operation does not amount to a constitutionally impermissible search, wraps up this section.

Section Four sets out best practices that should be incorporated into a framework governing IMSI Catcher use. The section recommends that IMSI Catcher use by state agencies be subject to comprehensive transparency mechanisms, including annual statistical reporting on use, an individual notice requirement, and compliance with standard reporting obligations typically applied to radio devices owned by state agencies. It further argues for the criminalization of unauthorized uses of IMSI Catchers. Such authorization should be subject to a strict regime that is linked with demonstrating their investigative necessity, including a “serious crimes” provision that limits IMSI Catchers’ use to investigate only the most severe offences. In addition to proportionality measures, targeting and minimization procedures should be imposed to limit the collateral impact of deployment on innocent third-parties.

The report’s Conclusion highlights core findings and also emphasizes the importance of privacy in liberal democratic societies.

We hope that this report will contribute to the growing discussion and debate concerning how, and the appropriateness of, state agencies’ use of IMSI Catchers. Ultimately, it is in the government’s and citizens’ best interest for state agencies to be more transparent and accountable for how they use IMSI Catchers in the course of conducting investigations.

DOWNLOAD FULL REPORT (English) // DOWNLOAD EXECUTIVE SUMMARY (French)

Project Support

The authors would like to graciously thank a number of sources whose generous funding made this report possible: the Open Society Foundation, Frederick Ghahramani, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellowship Award, and the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Furthermore, the authors are grateful for in-depth substantive input on the December 2015 draft of this document from Professor Ron Deibert and Sarah McKune, to Adrian Dabrowski and to participants of Citizen Lab Summer Institute 2016 for key input on technical questions raised by this paper and to Lex Gill for extensive substantive additions and edits. Responsibility for any errors or omissions remains with the authors.

Authors

Christopher Parsons

Dr. Christopher Parsons received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Guelph, and his Ph.D from the University of Victoria. He is currently the Managing Director of the Telecom Transparency Project and a Research Associate at the Citizen Lab, in the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Tamir Israel

Tamir is staff lawyer with the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, where he conducts research and advocacy on various digital rights-related topics, with a focus on online privacy and anonymity, net neutrality, intellectual property, intermediary liability, spam, e-commerce, and consumer protection generally.

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