More than a month after the RCMP admitted to using invasive cellphone spyware technology, the national police force has yet to turn over information about the program to Parliament’s privacy watchdog.
Privacy Commissioner Philippe Dufresne told the House of Commons’ ethics committee that he found out about the RCMP’s “Covert Access and Intercept Team” and its use of cellphone spyware through media reports in late June.
The RCMP admitted in June that it had deployed invasive cellphone hacking techniques in 10 separate investigations between 2018 and 2020. The revelations came in response to a parliamentary documents request by a Conservative MP, and were first reported by Politico.
The force uses what it calls “on-device investigative tools,” or ODITs, that give the Mounties the ability to obtain “covert and remote” access to target cellphones or other electronic devices. Once covertly installed, these tools allow the RCMP to collect data such as text messages, audio recordings, photos, calendars, financial records – and even sounds picked up by the device’s microphones or images observed by cellphone cameras.
Dufresne told the committee the RCMP conducted a “privacy impact assessment” on the use of spyware in 2021 – three years after the force says it deployed the hacking tools in an investigation.
“Given this new technology, are the safeguards sufficient? Or do we have recommendations to make it safer from a privacy standpoint? These tools may well be needed, but do they have an impact from a privacy standpoint that is greater than what is warranted? … This is the central question,” Dufresne said.
Dufresne declined repeatedly to pronounce on that question until the RCMP brief his office.
The RCMP stressed the 10 uses of the invasive spyware were done with judicial sign-off. The force also strongly suggested the tactic was required due to the ubiquity of encrypted communications, which it contends makes its electronic investigations more difficult.
“Although police are sometimes able to collect data stored on or sent/received using (encrypted) devices, encryption often renders the data unintelligible,” the RCMP said in its disclosure to Parliament.
The force went on to say its “Covert Access and Intercept Team” uses the spyware when “less intrusive techniques are unsuccessful.” The spyware allows the Mounties to collect data after it has been received by the targeted device and decrypted, or collect data before it has been encrypted and sent.
Ron Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and a world-leading expert on surveillance technology, said Canada is sending a bad signal by allowing its national police force to quietly deploy invasive spyware.
“The Canadian government purports to protect human rights and stand for rule of law and democracy around the world. The non-public adoption of spyware (and other surveillance technology) runs directly contrary to those principles,” Deibert wrote in a submission to the ethics committee, reviewed by Global News.
“In adopting this technology, we are essentially telling authoritarian states – as well as our allies – that we do not care about these principles.”
The ethics committee is scheduled to hear from Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino later Monday, as well as senior representatives from the RCMP.
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