For years, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (also commonly referred to as the CSIS) has been using a unique type of cell phone identification and tracking technology in an effort to help track targets and keep communities safe from crime. However, it was recently revealed that the agency had been doing so both with and without a warrant – problematic, to say the least. Now, it has been confirmed that the use of this technology was suspended in January of 2017, and the program itself was placed under review, as per a report that originally ran on CBC News.
CSIS and Stingrays: What You Need to Know
The controversial type of cell phone surveillance technology that the CSIS had been using are called “Stingrays.” They’re very common, particularly in the United States. These are devices that pretend to be legitimate cell phone towers that targeted cell phones in the area connect to without the knowledge of the user.
Once that connection has been established, any piece of information passing over the network – from data about who a particular person is calling to even text and media messages – can be seen by the Stingray operator.
Stingrays go by a wide range of different names, from IMSI catchers to mobile device identifiers to cell-site simulators, but their use is almost always the same. Intelligence agencies and even local police departments in both the US and Canada regularly use them to investigate crimes, uncover national security threats and more.
Interestingly, CSIS has not actually stated what prompted the suspension of the program or the internal review. It could have been a single incident, or it could have been the air of controversy that the technology has been operating under for many years thanks to their counterparts in the United States. Regardless, only after the review is completed and official recommendations are made will the policy and procedures for use of these devices be reinstated.
A Question of Privacy
The major issue here seems to be that Stingrays were commonly employed with or without warrants, leading to almost immediate concerns from privacy advocates across the country. When a local law enforcement agency wants to deploy Stingrays to monitor a particular target, they must first go to a judge to seek a warrant. It turns out that CSIS was either under no such requirement or chose to ignore it in certain situations.
The discrepancy stems from the CSIS Act, which is a blanket document that gives CSIS the authority to use certain investigative powers without a warrant. Lisa Austin, a law professor and legal expert at the University of Toronto, believes that the reliance on the CSIS Act only asks more questions than it answers in this particular case.
“Was this because they did not think that the use of the technology intruded upon a reasonable expectation of privacy? That would be a troubling interpretation,” she said. “Or was it because it was used outside of Canada in circumstances where they did not believe they were subject to the same charter standards in relation to privacy?”
CBC News reports that for a period of approximately six months in 2015, CSIS did not seek warrants for using this type of cell phone surveillance technology under a recommendation from the Department of Justice. This only served to make a bad situation worse when it was revealed that the spy agency had been collecting and storing sensitive metadata on many Canadians for about ten years – most of which was totally unrelated to the various investigations that it was conducting.
One thing is clear: This is a very interesting (and troubling) time for everyone involved, particularly as smartphones become a more ubiquitous part of our lives on a daily basis. The next time you want to send that personal photo or confidential message using your phone, you may want to think twice – you truly never know who might be “listening.”