Edmonton police backtrack on StringRay surveillance statement

Edmonton police are backtracking after admitting to using a Stingray, a controversial surveillance device that indiscriminately eavesdrops on any cellphone within its range.

'It catches everyone, and that's the problem ... if you're walking by, it's got your phone'

A surveillance tool called the StingRay can tap cellphone signals and cull information from kilometres away, without ever being detected by the targeted users. (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

Edmonton police are backtracking after admitting to using a StingRay, a controversial surveillance device that can indiscriminately eavesdrop on any cellphone within its range.

In an article published last week by Motherboard, a subsidiary of Vice Media, EPS police spokesperson Anna Batchelor was quoted as saying, "I'm able to confirm the Edmonton Police Service owns a StingRay device and has used the device in the past during investigations."

However, EPS has since issued a statement to CBC News calling that initial statement a "miscommunication."

"There was some miscommunication/misunderstanding internally surrounding the information obtained on whether the EPS owns a StingRay, and in fact, the EPS does not own a Stingray device," the statement read. 

"Police agencies do not comment on equipment used in electronic surveillance or on investigative techniques, therefore the EPS cannot provide any further information on this topic."

Silent surveillance 

Initially developed for the military and intelligence communities, StingRay is the commercial name for devices known as IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catchers.

Casting a wide net, the surveillance devices intercept cellphone signals by acting as a mobile tower.

"It impersonates a cellphone tower," said University of Calgary professor Tom Keenan, a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and author of Techno Creep.

"Your phone has to identify itself. But it turns out there is kind of a design problem, because the network doesn't have to authenticate back."

The surveillance tools can tap phone signals within any given cellular network, and cull information from kilometres away without being detected by the targeted users or their service providers.

When a phone is intercepted by a StingRay, police gain access to the phone, its SIM card IDs, its location and service carrier. Some devices are also capable of intercepting phone calls and text messages.

"Someone who uses a StingRay can put it somewhere physically, or there is even one you can wear in a vest and it picks up the traffic that's going by," said Keenan. 

"And police like it because they can find bad guys' cellphones. That's what they say they are using it for."

This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows the StingRay II. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office/Associated Press)
 

Though use of the devices is now more widely acknowledged in the United States, their implementation across Canada is more opaque, as many police agencies refuse to confirm or deny they use them.

Keenan said police have always been squeamish about admitting to their use, even after cases where they were used to gather surveillance evidence went to trial.

"It got to be this really, really weird thing, where police agencies refused to admit that they had it, even though it was rather clear that they were using these things," Keenan said. 

"I have to give Edmonton credit. Except for the RCMP, I don't know of any other police agency in Canada that has been that forthcoming about it."

The privacy problem

Though useful to police agencies, the technology poses some troubling privacy concerns, Keenan said. Not only do the devices track users' movements, they can also "mine" users' personal data.

"In the United States, there are rules that you have to destroy that information after an investigation. But in Canada we don't have rules like that, so the government can sit on this information for years and years," he said.

"It catches everyone, and that's the problem. If you're walking by, it's got your phone. It's creepy"

Keenan said federal regulations on phone surveillance need to be tightened to improve public oversight and to ensure they are only used as a "last resort" investigative tool.

"It should be used in the serious cases. It should only be used when it's the only way left to get the information."