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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

Public Submission on IMSI Catchers

5047039173_36fbdc9523_oOn 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.

Download the Intervention (Alternate Link)

Authors

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.

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 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

Amici Curiae on IMSI Catchers

Image by iDownloadBlog

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.”

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