On October 14, 2015 the Pivot Legal Society in British Columbia filed a complaint with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) of British Columbia concerning the Vancouver Police Department’s (VPD) refusal to disclose any documents concerning the department’s use of IMSI Catchers. IMSI Catchers, also known as Cell Site Simulators or Mobile Device Identifiers, are designed to impersonate cellular telecommunications towers. The devices are used to collect identifiers and potentially content transmitted from mobile phones in the device’s vicinity. In response to Pivot Legal Society’s complain Tamir Israel (from CIPPIC) l and I intervened on behalf of Open Media to argue that VPD ought to be compelled to disclose documents they possessed concerning their use of IMSI Catchers.
Our intervention begins by outlining how IMSI Catchers technically function. Next, we demonstrate how the test for investigative necessity advanced by VPD simply does not apply to responsive records in light of the significant general information regarding IMSI Catcher use. Finally, we argue that even if disclosure of responsive records will, to some degree, undermine the utility of IMSI Catchers as an investigative tool, disclosure must still occur. Confirmation of IMSI Catcher use is a necessary precursor to informed public debate and to the proper legal constraint of an invasive surveillance tool and is therefore in the public interest.
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.
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 Postdoctoral Fellow at the Citizen Lab, in the Munk School of Global Affairs.
Photo credit: Mobile Phone Tower by Michael Coghlan (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/8FZoUM