British Columbia

Are StingRay cellphone surveillance systems used by Vancouver police?

The Vancouver Police Department is refusing to say whether it is using a controversial cellphone surveillance system called a StingRay that mimics cell phone towers to intercept calls and data.

Pivot Legal Society raises concerns spoof cell phone towers may be used to collect data from nearby phones

This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows the StingRay II, manufactured by Harris Corporation, of Melbourne, Fla., a cellular site simulator used for surveillance purposes. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office/The Associated Press)

The Vancouver Police Department is refusing to say whether it is using a controversial cellphone surveillance system called a StingRay that mimics cell phone towers to intercept calls and data.

StingRay is the common name for cell-site simulators that trick nearby mobile devices into connecting, revealing the phone's location and data transmissions, including texts, emails and even voice conversations.

The devices have caused a furore in the U.S. where they are increasingly used by police, with towers sometimes disguised as pine or palm trees.

In Vancouver concerns have now been raised about the devices by the Pivot Legal Society, which filed Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to find out whether Vancouver police have bought one for use.

The answer they got, left them with more questions, according to Doug King, a lawyer with Pivot who specializes in police accountability.

"It's the first time I've ever seen a police department say we are not even willing to acknowledge the existence of those records. It's a step in secrecy that we've never seen before. It's deeply concerning," said King on Thursday morning.

CBC request denied

The Vancouver Police Department refused the CBC's request for an interview or to provide any information about the use of any such devices.

"We never provide information that may harm the effectiveness of investigative techniques and procedures currently used, or likely to be used, in law enforcement and would not be able to facilitate an interview," said Const. Brian Montague in an email to CBC today.

King says Pivot is concerned about the use of the devices, which are capable of blanket surveillance, without public accountability.

"You may find your data, your personal information being processed by police," he said. "We saw a progression in the United States where police departments were starting to use this device."

Pivot has appealed their FOI requests to the Privacy Commissioner's office to see it they can get more information.

King pointed out that a warrant from a court is traditionally needed to breach a person's privacy in Canada, and if that is not happening, legal reforms are needed.

"It is really concerning for us and I think it is part of a national conversation that needs to take place about the level of control that we allow our government over our personal information and our data."

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.