Documents reveal OPP’s powerful cellphone spy tech. Why does it no longer use it?


The Ontario Provincial Police acquired “Stingray” cellphone surveillance technology with the power to intercept private communications, according to documents obtained by the Star — a device with significantly more invasive capabilities than any other Canadian police force is known to have.

The OPP obtained the hardware five years ago. But a spokesperson says the force switched to equipment “not capable” of intercepting private communications in 2017. The force did not respond to questions about why it switched, or what happened to the previous device or devices, for which it ultimately paid more than $2 million.

The technology, known by a variety of names including IMSI catchers, Cell Site Simulators and Stingrays, mimics a cellphone tower, forcing nearby mobile devices to connect and collecting information from them.

Other law enforcement agencies, including the RCMP and Toronto Police, have explicitly said their IMSI catchers do not have the capability of intercepting private communications, such as calls, text messages, and emails. Instead, they collect identifying data, including an International Mobile Subscriber Number (IMSI) and other unique numbers that, with a warrant, can be linked to a suspect’s name and address.

This function is also controversial, however, because the devices can sweep up identifying data on thousands of bystanders in addition to targeted suspects.

The OPP’s IMSI catcher technology appears to have had the capability of intercepting the private communications of a single, targeted device. But the force would not answer many questions about how it was used, including what type of private communications it captured, how many times this capability was deployed, or how often it had loaned the capability to other forces.

“Revealing specifics could jeopardize investigations, ongoing court proceedings and impact public and officer safety,” spokesperson Carolle Dionne responded.

“Police services worldwide — including the OPP — recognize the need to build or enhance their capacity to conduct modern criminal investigations involving digital technologies, communications tools and information/data storage.”

Critics say more transparency is necessary.

“When it comes to surveillance tools, there needs to be a social licence for the use of them: the public needs to understand what’s being used, what the capacity is, and what accountability structures are in place to ensure that they’re used reasonably, proportionately, and fairly,” says Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the public needs to understand what surveillance tools are being used and their capacity.

“If we don’t even know that the tools with that capacity are in use in our jurisdictions, we can’t possibly ask or be given the right level of public accountability about whether or not they are being used in ways that we as a society believe are appropriate.”

The Star filed an access to information request for records related to the OPP’s IMSI catchers in January 2016. The provincial ministry responsible for law enforcement first refused to confirm or deny it had any such records, and later refused to release the records on multiple grounds, including that doing so would reveal investigative techniques currently or likely to be used, rendering those techniques ineffective.

The Star argued that the public should be given enough information about this technology to properly weigh the tradeoff between privacy and security.

After a years-long appeal process, the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner’s office (IPC) ruled last month that some documents related to the OPP’s acquisition and use of these devices must be released to the Star. Significant parts of the documents were redacted, upholding the ministry’s concerns about revealing investigative techniques.

The documents include contracts, purchase orders and a 2014 deployment protocol. The protocol is almost totally redacted except for a cover page and four sentences broadly describing the device’s capabilities.

The protocol shows that the OPP’s IMSI catcher could detect a cellular device’s identifying characteristics, deny cellular service to a specific device while not affecting others in the area, locate and track a device, and intercept “the private communications originated by and received by a specific cellular device.”

Sherry Liang, IPC assistant commissioner of tribunal services, ruled this information should be disclosed because it simply describes general functionalities corresponding to publicly available information about these devices.

Liang ruled that two more pages containing information that “would reveal more than the public already knows” about the capabilities of these devices should not be released.

Some IMSI catchers can not only intercept calls and texts but edit and reroute them, and can remotely activate a cellphone’s microphone. The OPP did not answer when asked whether its device had these capabilities.

The ministry also sought to prevent the release of these documents because it would prejudice a long-term, ongoing relationship between the OPP and another governmental organization. The organization’s name is redacted.

The Ontario Provincial Police owns cellphone surveillance technology with the power to intercept private communications, according to documents obtained by the Star, the first known instance of a Canadian police force possessing controversial “stingray” devices with this capability.

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In 2017, the RCMP gave an unprecedented media briefing in which it revealed it owned 10 IMSI catchers. It gave investigators from the Privacy Commissioner of Canada access to the devices to confirm that they were not capable of intercepting private communications. The RCMP always seeks judicial authorization to use these devices, except in exceptional and urgent circumstances, like kidnappings.

Asked whether the RCMP collaborated on investigations with the OPP or other police forces that own IMSI catchers capable of intercepting private communications, spokesperson Caroline Duval said “The RCMP does not report on investigations that are ongoing, or investigations that are led by other agencies or departments.”

The Star revealed in March that Toronto Police recently acquired an IMSI catcher. Prior to that it had used the technology in at least five separate investigations; in three of them, it relied on the RCMP’s devices.

Toronto Police spokesperson Meaghan Gray said that “TPS has not used an IMSI [catcher] (ours or anyone else’s) for the purpose of intercepting private communications.”

The OPP says its current IMSI catcher technology “is only used to collect transmission data in relation to mobile devices,” is used in major criminal investigations, and that a specific warrant related to this type of data is used to authorize its deployment. The force will not disclose the number of IMSI catchers it owns, because that information “is operational in nature.”

Kate Allen

Kate Allen is a Toronto-based reporter covering science and technology. Follow her on Twitter: @katecallen

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