Canada's National Police Force Officially Confirms Ownership, Use Of Stingray Devices

from the if-it-wasn't-for-those-meddling-journalists... dept

Just days after Montreal prosecutors cut loose 35 suspected Mafia members rather than disclose the details of Stingray device use by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the RCMP is admitting that, yes, it does use Stingrays.

It's not like it's not known the RCMP owns Stingrays. It has for nearly a decade now. It's just that it would rather not discuss it in court… or in public… or in public records responses.

The official revelation occurred in Ontario, and it didn't come as the result of a multitude of alleged criminals being released back into the general population. Instead, the (unwelcome) discussion of the RCMP's cell tower spoofers was prompted by a CBC investigation into "suspicious signals" and apparent cell phone tracking around the nation's capital.

The RCMP for the first time is publicly confirming it uses cellphone surveillance devices in investigations across Canada — but at the same time says the potential of unauthorized snooping in Ottawa, as reported by CBC News, poses a threat to national security.

"Absolutely," RCMP Chief Supt. Jeff Adam, who is in charge of technical investigations services, said in an unprecedented technical briefing Wednesday with reporters from CBC News, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail.

The RCMP held the briefing in the wake of a CBC News investigation that found evidence that devices known as IMSI catchers may be in use near government buildings in Ottawa for the purpose of illegal spying.

The RCMP Superintendent was quick to point out that if it was the agency's Stingrays the journalists discovered, there was nothing illegal about the spying. But he can't be sure there aren't others out there with the same equipment, doing the same sort of things the RCMP does, but without judicial permission. It has decided to join the news agencies' investigation of the "suspicious signals," which sounds a whole lot like the old joke about heroin addicts:

What's the difference between a thief and a junkie?

A thief will just steal your money. A junkie will help you look for it.

The RCMP let the public in on a few of its Stingray secrets during the press briefing [PDF]. It owns ten devices and claims that all but one deployment (in 2016) has been accompanied by a warrant. Much like those in use in the US, the Stingray's software only allows for the interception of phone numbers and device location (even though they all can be retrofitted to intercept calls and communications).

Discussions of earlier use show the warrant requirement wasn't always a requirement.

Police used to apply for a general warrant to use the technology. In 2015, Adam said there was a period of at least six months — between March and October — when the RCMP didn't seek a warrant at all, acting on advice from the Department of Justice and government prosecutors.

The use of the term "general warrant" suggests those signing off on warrant requests were likely not aware of the devices being deployed to perform the search. Law enforcement agencies have been hiding the existence of cell tower spoofers for years, starting with the judges approving their warrants and subpoenas. In the US, the FBI's own "Stingray Best Practices" instructed law enforcement agencies to lie to judges -- most of which took the form of pen register requests, rather than search warrants detailing the wholesale harvesting of cell phone numbers by repurposed military equipment.

Also admitted during this briefing was the fact that the RCMP didn't seek approval from the Canadian government's FCC equivalent, ISED.

Adam conceded that until two months ago the RCMP itself failed to get express approval to use MDIs from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED, formerly Industry Canada), the government body responsible for regulating technology that might interfere with wireless communications.

He said the RCMP believed at one point that an exemption introduced in early 2015 to the Radiocommunications Act allowing the use of cellular "jammers" might also exempt the use of MDIs — but ISED ultimately disagreed.

Apparently, the world of law enforcement is so fast-moving, there's no time to seek the proper clearances, even when you've had the devices in hand for nearly a decade before double-checking things with regulators. Again, pretty much identical to how things were handled here in the US. Blue minds think alike, or whatever.

With this limited (but public) disclosure, maybe the RCMP will pursue more prosecutions to the very end, rather than play catch-and-release with suspected criminals so that its not-all-that-secret secrets don't end up in defendants' hands.

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Filed Under: canada, imsi catcher, stingray

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  1. icon
    DannyB (profile), 11 Apr 2017 @ 6:07am

    Just to repeat my hypothesis

    Remember the recent story of the emergency sirens that were so easily set off by a childishly simple method?

    I think this is the big secret of stingray. This is why they want to keep it secret so badly that they will let criminals go free rather than let stingray be scrutinized in open court.

    Hypothesis 1: stingray is based on some fundamental weakness in the cellular system that is so severe that if it became generally known, every high school kid would build a stingray.

    Because of the severity of the weakness, the defense could argue in court that someone else created the network traffic (calls, messages, etc) which the stingray intercepted, thus pulling the rug from under the prosecution.

    Hypothesis 2: The exploit may involve secret keys, stolen credentials and other things that mobile operators would sue over, or inform law enforcement over, if they knew what was used in stingray. Using stingray may actually be illegal. This would explain parallel construction, NDAs, etc.

    In this case, the defense could argue that the evidence against the defendant was obtained by illegal means, breaking the law.

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