Surveillance data gathered by police on journalist not immediately secured, Chamberland commission hears

The surveillance data gathered by police while spying on a La Presse journalist was not immediately secured in the way the police department's top brass thought it was, the Chamberland commission heard Tuesday afternoon.

Montreal police Chief Philippe Pichet called revelation 'problematic'

Didier Deramond, the head of operations with Montreal police, testified Tuesday at the commission of inquiry on the protection of confidentiality of journalistic sources. (CBC)

The surveillance data gathered by police while spying on a journalist was not immediately secured in the way the police department's top brass thought it was, the Chamberland commission heard Tuesday afternoon.

Didier Deramond, head of operations for the SPVM, testified that he was assured in January 2016 that the information gathered during the surveillance of journalist Patrick Lagacé would be secured on an encrypted USB key.

But media lawyer Christian Leblanc, who is representing several media outlets including Radio-Canada, presented an affidavit before the commission, revealing that the data was not secured on a USB key until months later — on Oct. 27, 2016.

Montreal police Chief Philippe Pichet, who also testified before the commission on Tuesday, called the revelation "problematic" and "worrisome."

But he and Deramond responded that it's possible the surveillance data was first secured in another way before being transferred to an encrypted USB key.

Pichet confirmed that last year police were investigating an officer related to the leaking of information to the media.

He said that when he was informed that investigators would be electronically surveilling a journalist, he held a meeting with his assistant directors to be sure that they were respecting freedom of the press and the rights of journalists.

Surveillance of journalists is rare, commission hears

The commission also heard Tuesday that although journalists may play a "primordial role" in a democratic society, they should not expect the protection of their sources to be absolute. 

During his testimony, Deramond said police will only seek a warrant for electronic surveillance if no other method of investigation allows them to gather evidence.

He said that kind of surveillance is rare, and is restricted, but that because there is no legal definition for a journalist, they don't benefit from legal protection when it comes to investigations — unlike judges or lawyers.

No rules in place

The commission, led by Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Jacques Chamberland, is tasked with looking into police surveillance of journalists. CBC/Radio-Canada is a participant in the commission.

It was launched after it was revealed a number of journalists had been the target of surveillance by Montreal police and the Sûreté du Québec.

SQ Chief Martin Prud'homme testified on Monday that his police force had put a total of seven journalists under surveillance. That is one more than previously thought. 

Top provincial police brass who testified Monday said there were no rules in place about surveillance of journalists before Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux asked for procedures last fall.

with files from CBC's Jaela Bernstien