Is the RCMP using a technology that could allow them to secretly track and intercept Canadians' wireless communications?
The federal police agency has been asked to respond to questions related to a federal privacy complaint.
Stingray devices, or International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI)-catchers, used by some U.S. police forces, mimic cellphone towers in order to trick nearby cellphones into connecting. Once they are connected, the Stingray user can collect information transmitted by the phone, including its location, data transmissions, texts, emails and voice conversations.
Many Canadian civil rights advocacy groups have expressed concerns and tried to find out whether Canadian police forces are using the devices, without success.
They include Vancouver-based OpenMedia, which filed a complaint on March 3 with Daniel Therrien, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.
On April 1, OpenMedia received confirmation from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner that the RCMP had been notified of the complaint and asked to respond, OpenMedia said in a news release Wednesday.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada confirmed to CBC News Wednesday that it has launched an investigation. "Due to confidentiality provisions in the Privacy Act, we are unable to provide further details," it added in an email.
The complaint alleges the RCMP, the Vancouver Police Department and the Ontario Provincial Police have all refused to confirm or deny whether they use Stingray devices.
"We believe that these police departments' failure to acknowledge if and when they are utilizing these technologies highlights the grave potential that Canadians are suffering from a serious violation of their Charter rights," wrote Laura Tribe, digital rights specialist for Open Media.
"These tools have the potential to subject innocent Canadians to gross privacy violations, without their knowledge or consent. Accordingly, OpenMedia is concerned that Canadians currently have no recourse for justice."
Tribe asked the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to investigate the potential use of Stingray devices by the RCMP, which falls under its federal jurisdiction.
The RCMP confirmed Wednesday that it has been asked by the Privacy Commissioner if it uses Stingray devices, and said it will continue cooperating with the commissioner on the matter. However, it added in an email, "We generally do not comment on specific investigative methods, tools and techniques outside of court."
Last fall, the Pivot Legal Society in B.C. filed Freedom of Information requests to find out whether Vancouver police have purchased any Stingray devices. Vancouver police refused to acknowledge the existence of any records, prompting the society to appeal to the B.C. Privacy Commissioner's office. OpenMedia and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association are supporting the appeal.
The American Civil Liberties Union has identified 61 agencies in 23 states that own Stingray devices, though the group said that number likely underrepresents the actual total given how many agencies purchase the technology secretly. Known groups include the FBI, the National Security Agency and the Internal Revenue Service.
However, under a new policy announced Sept. 3, U.S. federal law enforcement officials will be routinely required to get a search warrant before using the secretive cellphone-tracking technology.