Court Documents Reveal the Use of Mass Surveillance Devices by the RCMP

Server room in datacenter

The publication ban on a case concerning organized crime in Montreal was lifted last week. Documents revealed that the RCMP used surveillance devices to target the suspects involved during an investigation called Project Clemenza. Furthermore, the RCMP obtained a BlackBerry encryption key that allowed them to intercept and decrypt PIN-to-PIN messages, the largest ever use of this technique in a North American investigation.

The RCMP used surveillance devices called IMSI catchers, commonly known as Stingrays, or cell site simulators. These devices pretend to be cell towers so that cell phones in range connect to them and collect information like unique phone identifiers and location. Some models can even block or record texts and calls. These devices, however, operate indiscriminately. They track every cell phone within range and have been described as a “dragnet search.”

Although these documents show that Canadian law enforcement has been using Stingrays for at least a decade, their use has only recently been publicized.

  • Federal authorities are under investigation after allegedly using one to capture calls and texts inside a federal penitentiary last year. There was concern about the reach of the devices – if they picked up communications from the visitor parking lot, employees, passing drivers or residents.
  • In April, a complaint was filed with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada after Open Media alleged the RCMP would not disclose whether or not they use Stingrays.
  • In May, court documents disclosed that Toronto Police had used a “mobile device identifier” in Project Battery.

The purchase of these devices often come with nondisclosure agreements, which might account for lack of public knowledge of their use.

Use of Stingrays in the United States is better documented and regulated. The ACLU lists on their website local and state police departments, and national agencies that are known to use them. The Justice Department published an official federal policy requiring warrants for their use, deletion of information once the device is located, and preventing the collection of the content of communications. This is in stark contrast to the practices of the RCMP, which collects and stores all data from a session.

Testimony from Officer Richdale, an RCMP IMSI operator, captured the concerns of its use: “If I were to use [an IMSI catcher] in this courtroom and I conducted a reading right now and everyone had a cellular device [identifying information from] all the cellular devices would be obtained and kept in our database.”


About the Author

Aubrey Abaya
Aubrey Abaya is pursuing her law degree at Penn State Dickinson School of Law in the US. She received her BA from the University of Toronto in Political Science with minors in History and American Studies. Aubrey has volunteered in various capacities at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association since 2012. In her spare time, she dabbles in theatre and film production, yoga and the occasional hip hop class.