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RCMP admits to using secretive spy tech to track Canadians’ cellphone data

An RCMP police car sits outside the Parliament buildings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday, February 6, 2015.
An RCMP police car sits outside the Parliament buildings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday, February 6, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld/File

The RCMP has admitted it possesses a controversial high-tech spy device that allowed it to track cellphone data in 19 criminal investigations last year.

“In the interest of transparency, the RCMP confirms the use of MDI [Mobile Device Identifier] technology to identify and locate a suspect’s mobile device,” the force said in a statement.

It’s believed to be the first official public acknowledgment by the RCMP that the force uses surreptitious devices to collect such information, known as metadata. The devices mimic a cellphone tower to interact with nearby phones and read their unique IDs – the International Mobile Subscriber Identity, or IMSI – which can then be used to track the phone and identify the owner.

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The Mounties say the devices do not capture private communications such as voice calls, emails, text messages or contact lists.

Instead, the technology is being described as “an important investigative tool” that “can be used to further criminal investigations relating to national security, serious and organized crime.”

A CBC report published Monday stated the device was being used in recent months in close proximity to Parliament Hill and the U.S. and Israeli embassies, among other locations.

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On Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson and CSIS director Michel Coulombe both confirmed that their agencies were not involved.

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“The activity that was reported last evening does not, I repeat, does not involve a Canadian agency like the RCMP or CSIS,” Goodale said. “Secondly, those activities are now under active investigation by both the RCMP and CSIS.”

Goodale acknowledged the technology is possessed by police and security agencies both in Canada and around the world, but noted that in Canada, its use is governed by law.

“Both CSIS and the RCMP have the legal and privacy issues that are involved here under active ongoing assessment and reassessment, to ensure … that our Canadian agencies like CSIS and the RCMP are always staying squarely within the four corners of the law.”

— With files from Rahul Kalvapalle

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