'You Have Zero Privacy' Say RCMP Social Media Surveillance Documents Before Going On To Demonstrate Why

from the big-hatted-parent-lurking-over-every-social-media-user-shoulder dept

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have eyes everywhere. That's according to documents obtained via public records requests by The Tyee, which published selections from the 3,000 pages it has spent more than a year suing to obtain.

The RCMP has made news previously for doing things like sidestepping warrant requirements for obtaining user data from ISPs and dropping criminal cases rather than discuss its not-so-secret Stingray devices in court. It's making headlines again, but not the sort it wants. A presentation contained in the document stash provides more details on "Project Wide Awake" -- an advanced social media monitoring program first uncovered by The Tyee more than a year ago.

The program is named after a project named in an X-Men comic book. The fact that the RCMP chose this name for its social media monitoring program is more than a little chilling.

Because mutants were beginning to pop up all over the world, some members of the administration decided that America should start enlisting the aid of friendly mutants into the ranks of government agencies (under careful control, of course) for America's protection. Other members of the administration felt that the mutants should be rounded up and used as a resource, but their methods denied mutants even their most basic civil rights. Still other bureaucrats believe that all mutants should be destroyed. Project: Wideawake has evolved more towards the second way of thinking (mutants as a resource) under the direction of [National Security advisors] Petrie and Gyrich.

Fun stuff. And the fun doesn't stop there. One slide from the presentation dourly (and accurately, it appears!) notes:

You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.

This sardonic statement was presumably inserted in the Wide Awake presentation to make Mounties less concerned about possible civil liberties violations. If no one has any privacy, nothing the program consumes could possibly violate something that -- according to this presentation -- no longer exists.

But some expectations of privacy are still being violated, it would appear. Here's just a partial list of the program's feature:

The documents reveal the RCMP:

  • Gained permission to hide sole-source contracts for Project Wide Awake from the public through a “national security exception.”

  • Discussed “tier three” covert operations involving the use of proxies — intermediary computers located elsewhere — to hide RCMP involvement with spying activities.

  • Purchased software with an aim to search “Darknet,” which it defined to include “private communications” and those from “political protests.”

  • Has used a tool to unmask lists of “friends” on Facebook for users that specifically set friends’ information to private on the platform.

The first bullet point is a matter of concern. Going sole-source shuts down the bidding process, which means the public isn't notified of RCMP acquisitions and projects. It also limits the amount of oversight RCMP will be subjected to by keeping some legislators out of the loop as well. And the best way to keep people out of the loop and the RCMP free from pesky oversight is to claim everything is too sensitive to be handled normally.

In February 2019, as the force sought to secretly obtain Babel X or a tool much like it, an officer argued to Public Services and Procurement Canada that “if released into the public domain” knowledge such software was being used by the RCMP could “jeopardize border integrity” and “criminal and national security investigations,” and “provide avenues for adversaries to attempt to defeat these capabilities,” the newly released documents show.

The commissioner of federal policing went even further than this jumble of words, requesting a "national security exception" for surveillance tech/software purchases by the RCMP.

Babel X is a powerful social media monitoring tool that can instantly translate over 200 languages and provides a plethora of filtering tools (including geofences) to allow law enforcement to hone in on anything (or anyone) they feel might be suspicious. More worryingly, the software can also filter for certain number sequences, allowing users to track uses of social security, drivers license, or credit card numbers. Its produced by the same company that sells cell location data harvested from phone apps to a number of US government agencies and military contractors.

The RCMP's spokespeople (as well as some of the documents obtained by The Tyee) claim these surveillance techniques are aimed only at "open source" targets. This use of the term implies everything obtained is surface-level, pulled from public accounts and public posts. But the specifics tell a different story. As listed above, part of the RCMP's toolset allows investigators to access the contents of "Friends" lists that have been set to private -- not exactly "open source." The same goes for its dark web crawlers. People use the dark web specifically to avoid surveillance. This upends that expectation, but the RCMP continues to insist it's just obtaining what anyone could obtain by surfing the open web.

But the tools also make engaging in covert surveillance easier. Investigators can go undercover, using accounts with zero links to the RCMP, to access conversations and communications that are anything but "open source." Again, this isn't a new technique, but software like this allows intrusive surveillance to scale.

The Tyee is still wading through its stash of documents so this first report doesn't do much more than scratch the surface. But the secrecy surrounding social media surveillance programs is getting subjected to a little sunshine.

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Filed Under: canada, privacy, rcmp, surveillance


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  • icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), 19 Nov 2020 @ 9:40am

    Scott McNealy

    FWIW, the "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." line is a Scott McNealy quote from 1999:

    http://www.wired.com/politics/law/news/1999/01/17538

    But it's interesting to see others adopting it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Khym Chanur (profile), 19 Nov 2020 @ 9:54am

    dropping criminal cases rather than discuss its not-so-secret Stingray devices in court.

    Has anyone figured out why the hell law enforcement agencies are so secretive about Stingray?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      TFG, 19 Nov 2020 @ 10:00am

      Re:

      If they're forced to talk about it, they run the risk of the details of just how shady they are being revealed, which could lead to sensible legislation that would restrict how they use them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Koby (profile), 19 Nov 2020 @ 1:28pm

      Re:

      The main reason I think is that if it's generally known by the public that tracing thru your cellphone is easy and done all the time, then crooks will stop carrying cell phones, thereby making the technique much less useful. Just pull the battery, or perhaps leave it on and at home to claim an alibi.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2020 @ 3:27am

        Re: Re:

        Your cell location is not a very good alibi, not a very good piece of evidence either.

        The ease with which one can plant evidence these days makes cell phone data less incriminating if one is using logic to determine guilt.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jason, 19 Nov 2020 @ 10:39am

    They sure take a short hop from "you have no privacy" to listing all the things they do to keep their actions, er, what's the word, private.

    Still, it's just a quick fix to their slide presentation:

    You have zero privacy anyway. We require absolute privacy. Get over it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Nov 2020 @ 11:08am

    "Because mutants were beginning to pop up all over the world,"

    So, we're mutants now .. good to know.

    Some people need a way to dehumanize things, I wonder if it makes them feel any better - as if they feel anything at all, other than hatred, to begin with.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 20 Nov 2020 @ 12:30am

      Re:

      "So, we're mutants now .. good to know."

      No, worse. As it turns out there are, among the common herd of sheep called the citizenry not just crackpots who refuse to accept the given narrative and invent their own - conspiracy theorists - but also an incredibly dangerous type of subversive and borderline terrorist who refuses to accept the given narrative in favor of observing the actual facts.

      You know, the sort of fellow about whom Kings used to lament whether anyone would rid them of that troublesome priest. In the days of old that priest might just go missing or have a sudden accident involving sharp objects.

      Today that nefarious truthsayer can actually be seen and heard by millions. Highly inconvenient to most of the people in charge who really don't like it when their ten years worth of lying through their teeth is placed against their current inspiring campaign speeches.

      So when authoritarians, fascists, bigots of one stripe or the other, the copyright cult, actual criminals or the third-rate ambulance chaser afraid of visible consumer reviews turn to the people in charge begging for any way to undermine the civil rights and propensity of said citizenry to make use of free speech and privacy, they find a willing and eager ear more often than not.

      I think that if people just randomly started developing superpowers it might not prompt quote so a panicked response among so very many as the idea that the inconvenient truthsayers and whistleblowers can gain a widespread audience.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 20 Nov 2020 @ 12:20am

    The rot, it spreads?

    I must say that twirling his sinister new moustache is not a good new look for Dudley Do-Right.

    Sign of the times, I guess. We spent centuries establishing basic principles of how a democracy must work - the minimum basic requirements of citizen privacy, good jurisprudens, and due cause required before the government may use its monopoly on violence to infringe on the core civil rights.

    And as soon as the citizenry has privacy and freedom of speech in reality and at scale the discussion has to be had all over again, because it would just be so convenient for authoritarians if "the law" no longer had to bother about the principles it was founded on.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2020 @ 1:28am

    Watch VPN usage go way up in Canada

    I could see VPN usage happening in the USA. One article mentioned that Biden is being pressured to find a way to cesnsor conservative websites and blogs

    One thing they fail to realize is Breitbart, Townhall, and other sites could relocate outside the United States, along with their servers, and United States laws would not apply.

    Even if the sites were ordered blocked, people can, and will, start using VPNs to circumvent such censorship.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous, 21 Nov 2020 @ 8:49pm

    RCMP surveillance

    Does this apply to Canadian citizens, residents, outside the country?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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