Electronic Surveillance - News

  • – 2016-10-05 –

    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’s framing 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. 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 authored in conjunction with Christopher Parsons at the Citizen Lab, beginning with today's installment (after the jump, or in PDF format) regarding the government’s reincarnation of a highly controversial telecommunication subscriber identification power.

  • – 2016-09-20 –

    CIPPIC appeared today before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy & Ethics (ETHI) in its ongoing review of Canada's aging Privacy Act. The Act regulates the federal government's handling of personal information, comprising a central component of Canada's privacy framework. However, it has not received any substantial updates since its introduction in the early 1980s, despite tectonic shifts in the incentives animating government data-related objectives as well as in the technological capability to achieve these objectives. In addition, the government has introduced numerous laws designed to update and expand its ability to collect, use and share private data since the 1980s, including laws specifically designed to address technological developments. In the face of this one-sided expansion of state capabilities, the Privacy Act has simply not kept pace, and is in serious need of modernization if it is to continue to effectively meet its objectives to protect individual privacy rights, facilitate government accountability and safeguard public trust.

    CIPPIC's recommendations sought to address key gaps in the Privacy Act, while adding principled protections that will help the Act stay relevant in the future. This includes the addition of principled limits on how long data can be reasonably kept by the government. There is currently no such explicit obligation in the Privacy Act, despite the fact that retention limitations are a hallmark of data protection regimes. An over-riding reasonableness obligation is also necessary, as it would ensure government data practices remain proportionate and in alignment with Charter values. CIPPIC also called for addressing central shortages in the Act's transparency framework, including the incorporation of statistical reporting obligations attaching to all law enforcement electronic surveillance powers, and a general 'openness' obligation compelling the government to proactively explain its privacy practices. Additional recommendations addressed the need for mandating reasonable technical safeguards, a mandatory data breach notification regime and formalizing privacy impact assessment requirements.

  • – 2016-09-13 –

    CIPPIC and the Citizen Lab, released a report today that describes and analyzes a class of covert electronic surveillance devices called cell site simulators (typically referred to as IMSI Catchers or by brand names such as 'Stingray'). IMSI Catchers operate by impersonating cell phone towers in order to trick mobile devices within range into transmitting digital identifiers, which are then used to track mobile devices or identify the otherwise anonymous individuals associated with them. The report (Executive Summary, FR) argues that the devices are inherently invasive. The geo-location and identification they facilitate engages sensitive privacy interests and, moreover, they are inherently coarse - for each target they are deployed against, the privacy of thousands of non-targeted mobile devices within range is collaterally affected. IMSI Catchers are also intrusive for their interference with the operation of mobile devices, which cannot receive or transmit any phone, text or data communications while engaged with an IMSI Catcher. This can include interference with critical communications such as emergency 911 calls.

    Exacerbating the intrusive features of this electronic surveillance tool has been the cloud of secrecy that pervades its use. The report describes significant efforts by journalists and civil society, in Canada and abroad, which sought to uncover use of this device in Canada and the heavy and unnecessary yet persistent resistance these efforts have experienced. The resulting secrecy, which appears to be encouraged by non-disclosure agreements imposed on Canadian agencies by IMSI Catcher vendors, has delayed important public policy debates regarding the appropriate use of these devices, while eroding public confidence. The report calls for the imposition of a range of transparency, proportionality and mitigation measures, modeled on regulatory frameworks adopted by other jurisdictions for IMSI Catchers, by Canadian courts and legislatures for comparably intrusive electronic surveillance tools and by international normative frameworks for digital privacy protection.

  • – 2016-03-23 –

    Cell-site simulators, colloquially referred to as IMSI Catchers or by brand names such as "Stingrays" or "King Fisher" are surveillance tools used by state agencies to identify or track mobile devices (and, of course, the individuals associated with such devices). Compared to other surveillance devices, IMSI Catchers are inherently invasive. They are designed to impersonate cell towers, in both functionality and appearance. As a result, IMSI Catcher surveillance is broad and indiscriminate -each time an IMSI Catcher is deployed against a specific target, it interferes with all devices in range. Each time an IMSI Catcher is used against one specific target, it can interfere with the privacy of thousands, collecting the digital identifiers (IMSI, IMEI) of all mobile devices within range. With these identifiers, otherwise anonymous individuals can be geo-located or tracked. In addition to the privacy interference, IMSI Catchers interfere with the functionality of mobile devices in range, preventing them from sending or receiving phone calls, text messages or data, including emergency 911 calls.

    The secrecy surrounding the use of these devices has been significant, with law enforcement agencies in Canada generally refusing to acknowledge, or even deny, whether they have ever made use of such a device. The Vancouver Police (VPD), for example, have refused to respond to a freedom of information demand from the Pivot Legal Society for any records relating to its use of these devices. CIPPIC and Christopher Parsons from Citizen Lab represented an intervener in the appeal of that refusal, OpenMedia. VPD defends its decision on the basis that acknowledging any IMSI Catcher would undermine their utility as surveillance tools. However, as we pointed out in the intervention, a lot of information is already in the public record regarding the capabilities of these devices and their use by state agencies, and there is a compelling public interest in publicizing use of these devices, to facilitate public debate regarding the appropriate parameters of their use. UPDATE: On May 25, 2016, after reviewing the record of the appeal, VPD issued a response, indicating that they do not own an IMSI Catcher and have no records relating to the use of such devices. However, ongoing questions remain regarding whether VPD has used these devices in past investigations through the aegis of the RCMP.

  • – 2015-11-27 –

    In the wake of the Paris attacks, there have been numerous calls by security agencies to once again expand the nature and scope of surveillance and other security framework under which they operate. Many of these calls were neatly summarized in an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail published November 25, 2015. A number of civil society organizations wrote in response today, refuting the one-sided expansion of state powers as an enduring solution to the world's security problems, the full response and list of signatories is replicated below. Also today, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group penned a well-argued response to attempts by RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, who has renewed calls for legislation granting police unsupervised and unrestrained access to online identifiers. The post recalls how Canadians have soundly rejected such calls in the past when it was presented as a solution to, in succession: cybercrime, child pornography and cyber-bullying. This latest iteration is equally as invasive and equally as unnecessary as its predecessors. Online identifiers are the essence to digital privacy and anonymity. Granting wholesale access to them is neither necessary to effective law enforcement or counter-terrorism, nor is it a proportional incursion on our digital privacy. If police need specific access to identifying information, it should only be obtained through the use of a dedicated production order similar to those already in the Criminal Code for other forms of metadata such as transmission and tracking information.

    Overall, as both civil society initiatives note, we are seeing a familiar list of demands for new powers from law enforcement following the Paris attacks. However, it is notable that none of these are responses to whatever shortcomings (if any) in surveillance powers may have contributed to the Paris attacks. The Globe and Mail letter is reproduced after the bump and can also be read here.

  • – 2015-11-20 –

    CIPPIC, OpenMedia, and over 40 other civil society groups and privacy experts wrote to the government today calling for a public consultation on the legacy of Bill C-51, the highly controversial and one-sided overhaul of Canada's security and investigative framework adopted by the previous government late last year. The letter notes with enthusiasm the government's commitment to address some of the pressing problems raised by Bill C-51, but urges that these fixes come only after public engagement on the issue has occurred. Bill C-51 was developed in an atmosphere and process that was often openly hostile to civil society input, and this is reflected in almost every facet of its multi-pronged expansion of security powers. It detrimentally impacted on several elements of Canadian society while exacerbating long-standing problems relating to Canada's flight-restriction mechanisms, information-sharing, intelligence oversight and due process. It is no surprise that over 300,000 Canadians have spoken out against Bill C-51, and in just the past week more than 10,000 have called on the government to publicly consult on how to address its legacy.

    In spite of this controversy, the letter points out, neither this government nor the previous has ever made the case for any of Bill C-51's elements, and that doing so must be the first step to a reasoned debate around its various elements. Once this case has been made, in the form of a discussion paper, the letter calls for an online public consultation as well as an opportunity for stakeholders to comment on the measures and justifications underlying the changes to Canada's security framework that the government wishes to adopt or retain. In particular, there is concern that the adoption of parliamentary oversight for intelligence agencies - a mechanism that has proven useful, but not independently sufficient in many foreign jurisdictions including the United States and the United Kingdom - will be presented as a panacea to the excesses of Canada's security apparatus. The letter, as well as a joint media release that accompanied its delivery, can be read after the bump, and our Bill C-51 primer (with OpenMedia and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression) can be read here (PDF).

  • – 2015-11-18 –

    CIPPIC testified today before a special committee established by the BC Legislative Assembly in order to review the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA), the data protection statute regulating the British Columbia government's use of personal information. CIPPIC was specifically asked to provide expert testimony on recent trade commitments undertaken by the federal government in its adherence to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and, specifically, on potential implications of these commitments for cross-border privacy protections in FIPPA. Recent trade commitments adopted in the TPP could be used to challenge protections in BC FIPPA and specifically section 30.1, which was enacted to safeguard some BC citizen data against cross-border data export that would expose this data to expansive foreign state surveillance powers. While TPP measures could be used to challenge restrictions on foreign data storage implemented further to section 30.1, these restrictions could be justified if shown to be necessary to achieve a clearly articulated legitimate objective such as privacy protection.

    CIPPIC's testimony highlighted the problems that arise where Canadian data crosses borders and is directly exposed to the limitless powers of foreign intelligence signals agencies. While Canada's own Communications Security Establishment (CSE) enjoys comparably unchecked powers that are insufficiently restrained in their impact on Canadian's privacy, Canadians enjoy some minimal protections when their own protections are caught in the web of its inherently foreign facing surveillance activities. Canadians enjoy no such protections when their data is exposed to other nations' foreign intelligence agencies, such as the US National Security Agency, which reportedly collects 100 million independent data points from US-based computer service providers in an average day. Data retained by the NSA includes highly sensitive information on individuals known not to be targets of any investigation. The ability to restrict some Canadian data from flowing abroad, while these agencies have expansive capabilities that could be used to harvest data from Canadian-based servers as well, preventing some types of Canadian data from flowing to the United States can render its acquisition by foreign agencies more difficult.

  • – 2015-06-05 –

    Monday, June 15, at 6pm CIPPIC, Amnesty International Canada & the Ottawa Public Library will host a free public screening of CitizenFour. The documentary explores how former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden approached reporters Laura Poitras (who also directed the Academy Award winning documentary), Glenn Greenwald and others with a treasure trove of classified documents exposing the shear unprecedented scope and magnitude of the NSA's monitoring of the world's digital activities. This, in turn, launched an international debate about the protection of privacy in the digital age and the appropriate role of our foreign intelligence agencies.

    Today marks the two year anniversary of the day the Guardian first reported on an NSA program that mandated Verizon and other US-based telecommunications companies to hand over metadata on all phone calls (domestic and foreign) on a regular basis in order to populate a metadata base that it could data-mine at will as part of its foreign intelligence program. The story sent ripples around the globe, and last week the US congress greatly restricted it by limiting the NSA's surveillance powers for the first time in decades. But the expansive metadata program, it turned out, was just the tip of the iceberg as a string of revelations from Snowden's files followed, each more staggering than its predecessor and confirming privacy advocate's worst predictions (CJFE hosts a searchable archive of these). We have also learned much about Canada's complicity (by its participation in the Five Eyes intelligence partnership with the US, UK, Australia & New Zealand) in creating this global web of surveillance. The film is a must-see for any privacy advocate, as well as for anyone who wants to learn about Snowden's experience or how our communications networks are monitored. Join us June 15! More details after the jump or download the event flyer

  • – 2015-04-30 –

    CIPPIC, OpenMedia and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression have released a primer on Bill C-51, the government's latest initiative to expand its state security apparatus. As the primer explains the Bill, which has been opposed from broad segments of Canadian society, signals a dramatic new direction for Canadian security. Presented as anti-terror legislation, the Bill adopts an excessive approach that will harm online innovation, political discourse and our civil liberties. It will reverse Canada’s rich multicultural heritage and replace it with an atmosphere of fear, distrust and racial profiling – where neighbours are encouraged to turn on neighbours on the basis of ‘reasonable fears’. The Bill was drafted and defended in an atmosphere openly hostile to civil liberties, and this is reflected in every element of it. One element of the Bill even seeks to allow our spy agencies to violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – our most vital protection against egregious state intrusion into our lives. It signals a return to a time when our security agencies were empowered to carry out dirty tricks against our citizens – and did so with impunity.

    It fails to address long standing and well-documented problems with Canada’s already excessively broad security powers, the misuse of which has led to the torture, detention, flight restriction and privacy invasion of many innocent Canadians since they were introduced post 9/11. Innocent Canadians’ lives have been ruined. This Bill not only fails to remedy those flaws, it replicates and expands the underlying problems without adding any meaningful safeguards to ensure the expansive powers it grants will not be similarly abused. It is little wonder that few who have carefully examined the Bill can fully support it in its current form. In spite of this, the government is currently rushing the Bill through not just one house of parliament, but both.

  • – 2015-01-29 –

    Data Privacy Day (a.k.a. Data Protection Day) 2015 marked a range of developments - some good, some bad, all significant. Data Privacy Day is celebrated annually to commemorate the world's first data protection treaty: the Council of Europe's Convention 108. This year, the day began with a series of startling revelations from CBC, which released documents acquired through former NSA Analyst Edward Snowden detailing a comprehensive electronic surveillance program that monitored various file upload sites around the world. The program, implemented by Canada's foreign intelligence agency, CSEC, involved combing through its comprehensive meta-data-bases in order to identify individuals uploading or accessing 'questionable' documents on sites such as MegaUpload and Rapidshare. Visitors to such documents are then subjected to intense meta-data-scrutiny in order to find their identity through such things as Facebook and email login cookies. Aside from the millions of documents tracked by the program daily, the program demonstrates an immensely invasive capacity that can emerge from mere analysis of the metadata held by CSEC and its Five EYEs partners. Far from acknowledging these concerns, we expect more of the same, with State promises to introduce expanded lone wolf surveillance powers this Friday.

    Some tentatively promising developments from APEC also came this week. CIPPIC had endorsed a letter sent by a number of privacy groups in late December pointing to several issues with APEC's certification of TRUSTe as an accountability agent capable of overseeing compliance with APEC obligations for the purpose of receiving personal data transfers from other APEC member states such as Canada. This week, APEC and TRUSTe addressed a number of the concerns, but left a few (particularly those relating to conflicts of interest between TRUSTe board members and some of the commercial organizations it is tasked with overseeing) outstanding. In brighter news, the Mexican data protection authority announced it would be officially signing the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance (IPAHRCS-es for short!), designed to provide comprehensive suggestions on how to conduct electronic surveillance in a targeted and privacy respective manner. The IPAHRCS have now been endorsed by over 480 international organizations, experts and government officials. An eventful data privacy day, for better or worse!