Vancouver police confirm use of ‘stingray’ surveillance technology

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Revelation is what is believed to be one of the first admissions by a municipal police force in Canada of using the controversial cellphone dragnet equipment

Police in Vancouver have confirmed they made use of stingray surveillance technology at least once, in what is believed to be one of the first admissions by a municipal police force in Canada of using the controversial cellphone dragnet equipment.

The revelation came after a year-long push by a coalition of civil rights organisations and Vancouvers Pivot Legal Society. In a recent letter to police, the groups asked Vancouver police two pointed questions: whether police had used stingray and if they would do so again.

And they responded with yes and yes, said Micheal Vonn of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, who posted the answer on the organisations blog earlier this week.

Stingrays, also known as IMSI catchers or cell-site simulators, mimic cellphone towers in order to strip metadata, location information and, in some cases, content from phones that connect to them.

Vancouver police confirmed to the Guardian that the device had been used in 2007 as an investigative tool in a suspected abduction that is now considered a possible homicide.

The police force said it does not own the device and had made a request for assistance to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The request, it noted, was based on exigent circumstances and authorised by the RCMP. The stingray was not operated by the Vancouver police and was used in an attempt to locate or verify the presence of the specific cellphone owned by the person believed to have been abducted.

Police in the western Canadian city had initially refused to confirm or deny the use of the device, leading to an inquiry by the provinces privacy commissioner. The inquiry was scuttled after police agreed to comply with the request. Police then disclosed that they do not possess a stingray and have no records of using the device, sparking a back and forth with civil rights organisations.

In responding to the police revelation, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association noted the police forces use of stingray appeared legitimate, appropriate and authorised, but questions remain as to why there was no paper trail or policies and procedures in place to guide the use of the device. Theres no logical reason why there should be no documents in a case where there actually has been a usage, said Vonn. We can only think that the desire has been to cover the tracks on that.

In recent days the organisation has received phone calls from others across Canada wondering about how widespread the use of stingrays may be among municipal police forces. If its available to the VPD then surely its available to other police forces that would make the request, said Vonn. So the question is, have they done so? That would be an awful lot of digging, so we dont know.

The use of stingrays by a growing list of federal agencies in the US has been widely documented, but little has been uncovered regarding their use in Canada. Much of what is known comes from a recent court case of a mafia murder in Qubec, during which the court heard the RCMP had been using the device in Canada for more than a decade.

Court documents detailed testimony from one officer who spoke of personally operating stingrays in 30 different operations and on 50 different subjects. Another said the RCMP was maintaining a large facility in an undisclosed location where it tested stingrays and developed methodologies.

Our best guess that municipal police departments can apply to the RCMP for use of them, said Vonn.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association is among several group calling on the Canadian government to regulate the use of the devices, pointing to the lack of policy currently surrounding the use of the device despite more than a decade of use.

Not only has it taken years to get the most basic and partial information on this subject, said Vonn, but we are still largely dependent on the goodwill of the police to use these devices responsibly, because protection from illegitimate or abusive use is next to nil.

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