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IMSI catcher

The government says it has given the RCMP the go-ahead to use this controversial cellphone-tracking technology, even though they’ve already been using it for years

The RCMP have gotten permission to use this cellphone tracking technology

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have obtained permission to use their IMSI catcher, the powerful phone-tracking technology they won’t admit they own, just as the minister of Public Safety has ordered an investigation into who is using the hardware in the nation’s capital.

In an email to VICE News, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada said they have given the RCMP a “radio authorization” to use the machines — the only one in the country, according to the department.

This is the first time the government ministry has revealed it gave the federal police service the go-ahead “for the installation, possession and operation of IMSI catchers designed to capture device identifier data on commercial mobile networks,” according to an email statement. A request for a copy of that authorization went unanswered.

Under the Radiocommunications Act, anyone looking to operate a device that could interfere with cell signals needs written permission from that government department.

Under the Radiocommunications Act, anyone looking to operate a device that could interfere with cell signals needs written permission from that government department. As recently as January, the Globe & Mail reported that police had not obtained that permission — even though there is documented evidence they use the equipment — meaning that they were breaking the law.

“This authorization does not exempt the RCMP from the requirement to obtain judicial warrants when using these devices in criminal investigations,” the government spokesperson added on Tuesday. The RCMP were also required to obtain permission from the department of Public Safety to buy the devices.

The RCMP, for their part, have not admitted that they own or operate these IMSI catchers, often known by the brand name Stingray, with the public safety minister’s own talking points insisting “we do not speak about specific tools or capabilities, regardless of what might be available in the public domain.”

VICE News, however, has published court documents and government files that prove that the police service has used the machines in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.

It’s not clear what capabilities the RCMP posses, as they have been deliberately opaque.

A request for comment from the RCMP for did not receive a response on Tuesday.

The devices mimic cell towers, and trick phones into connecting — in so doing, the IMSI catcher can pull identifying information from the device, pinpoint its location and, depending on the make and model, steal data from the phone itself. It’s not clear what capabilities the RCMP posses, as they have been deliberately opaque.

CBC and Radio-Canada reported on Monday that, in using a test to sniff out these devices throughout Ottawa, they found evidence of the IMSI catchers around Parliament Hill and elsewhere in the city.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said that, whoever is running the IMSI catchers in Ottawa, it’s not the RCMP or their intelligence counterparts in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

The activity that was reported last evening does not, I repeat, does not involve a Canadian agency like the RCMP or CSIS,” Goodale told reporters on Tuesday. “And secondly, those activities are now under active investigation by both the RCMP and CSIS.”

If someone is, indeed, running the IMSI catchers in Ottawa without clearing it through Public Safety and the Innovation ministry, they are breaking both the Criminal Code and the Telecommunications Act.

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