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Security, surveillance, and privacy researchers alike have been watching how authorities exploit cellular communications devices – often in secret, or absent sufficient oversight – for years. Research to-date has been performed by security researchers and hackers, social scientists, advocates, activists, and the curious, with contributions spanning hundreds of discreet investigations into technical capabilities and their social implications. Of late, a considerable amount of attention has been devoted to IMSI Catchers, which are devices that establish false mobile phone towers for the purpose of monitoring and tracking mobile phones without their users’ awareness.

Given the use of IMSI catchers by American authorities, a group of researchers and academics submitted an Amici Curiae (in their individual capacities) January 17, 2012 concerning the catchers. Specifically, the brief is in support of a defendant’s motion for disclosure of all relevant and helpful evidence withheld by the government based on a claim of privilege. The government, in this particular case, has admitted that the surveillance technologies used simulated a cell site but have refused to provide specific details of how this surveillance was conducted. We argue that a substantial amount of information surrounding IMSI catchers is already public and that, as a result, the secrets that the government is attempting to protect are already in the public domain. Moreover, the public interest is best served by “greater public discussion regarding these tracking technologies and the security flaws in the mobile phone networks that they exploit, not less.”

I want to thank the primary draftees of the brief for their (as always) excellent work and for the opportunity to sign on to it. Bringing transparency to government surveillance systems – especially when the government tries to limit public attention after information about these systems is publicly available – is critical if we are to foster serious and critical discussions about authorities’ capacity, and potential, to monitor and track citizens. Democratic systems work best when all branches of government – including law enforcement – cannot inappropriately hide their actions from the public. With an awareness of their government’s actions, the public can drive how their government functions as opposed to things happening the other way around.

I would note that IMSI catchers are of particular importance to Canadians. If forthcoming lawful access legislation is passed, in a format similar or identical to its last drafting, then Canadian police, intelligence, and security officers would be permitted to collect IMSI numbers, using catchers, and subsequently compel subscriber information from Canadian mobile phone providers. All of this would happen without a warrant. It cannot be stated enough that legalizing this level of unsupervised surveillance would have significant chilling speech and association implications. Moreover, it would significantly expand what constitutes ‘legitimate’ government surveillance while simultaneously undermining key privacy rights and expectations. Thus, while this particular Amici Curiae was sent to an American court, citizens in the Canada and UK would all be well served if our respective governments were transparent about their (stated and intended) usage of surveillance equipment, such as IMSI catchers, to surreptitiously monitor citizens.

To download the Amici Curiae, click here.