Technology, Thoughts & Trinkets

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Curated Canadian IMSI Catcher Resources

‘Untitled’ by Andrew Hilts

IMSI Catchers enable state agencies to intercept communications from mobile devices and are used primarily to identify otherwise anonymous individuals associated with a mobile device or to track them. These devices are also referred to as ‘cell site simulators’, ‘mobile device identifiers’, and ‘digital analyzers’, as well as by the brandnames such as ’Stingray’, DRTBox’, and ‘Hailstorm’. These surveillance devices are not new – their use by state agencies spans decades. However, the ubiquity of the mobile communications devices in modern day life, coupled with the plummeting cost of IMSI Catchers, has led to a substantial increase in the frequency and scope of IMSI Catcher use by government and non-government agents alike. The devices pose a serious threat to privacy given that they are highly intrusive, surreptitious, and subject to limited controls in relation to their licit and illicit sale or operation.

One of the challenges with understanding the current policy landscape around IMSI Catchers in Canada stems from different government agencies’ deliberate efforts to prevent the public from learning about whether agencies use such devices. Journalists and academics have tried to determine whether and how the devices are used over the course of approximately a decade; this means that information concerning their operation has unfolded over a significant length of time. Without a centralized resource to curate the successes and failures of these investigations it is often challenging for non-experts to understand the full context and history of IMSI Catchers’ operation in Canada.

Only recently have journalists, advocacy groups, and academics in North America learned about how their respective governments have historically, and presently, operated IMSI Catchers. Such revelations began around four years ago in the United States and within the past year and a half in Canada. Such revelations are the culmination of extensive preparatory work: though news articles and research reports appear more frequently, now, their existence today is predicated on the hidden labour that took place over the prior years.

For Canadians, the release of select court documents enabled more informed analysis of how these devices were used by federal, provincial, and municipal agencies. Such information was drawn on to prepare a report on IMSI Catchers that I wrote with Tamir Israel last year, in which we canvassed, collated, and analyzed what was technically understood about how IMSI Catchers operate, as well as the challenges Canadians have faced using freedom of information request to learn more about the technology. That report also included legal analyses of different ways of authorizing the devices’ operation and the Charter implications of their operation. Furthermore, in recent weeks the RCMP finally admitted to the public that it has used IMSI Catchers after previously claiming that any revelation of whether and how they used the devices would infringe on national security or ongoing investigations. Many other agencies have since followed suit, also informing the public whether they possess and operate IMSI Catchers in the course of their investigations.

To help interested members of the public, journalists, advocacy and activist groups, and fellow academics, I have collated a list of IMSI Catcher-related resources that pertain to the Canadian situation. This listing includes the most important primary and secondary documents to read to understand the state of play in Canada. Some of the resources are produced by academics and technologists, some focus on technology or policy or law, and others encompass the major news stories that have trickled out about IMSI Catchers over the past several years. If you believe that I have missed any major documents feel free to contact me.

Access the IMSI Catcher in Canada Resources

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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