OTTAWA – The RCMP created, then suddenly abandoned, a tool to crunch electronic message trails gathered during criminal investigations – a previously unknown foray into the controversial realm of big-data analysis.
The Mounties’ national intelligence co-ordination centre was operating the Telecommunications Analytical Platform, as the tool was known, as recently as mid-November, say internal RCMP notes obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act.
“The TAP is a platform that regroups copies of certain telecommunications metadata, which are lawfully collected by the RCMP and other Canadian police services in the course of criminal investigations,” the RCMP notes say.
Metadata is information associated with communications, but does not include the content of actual emails or phone calls. Still, privacy advocates say it can reveal much about a person and should be subject to strict handling procedures.
The RCMP tool analyzes metadata from concluded investigations only, such as phone numbers, associated crime types, source links to police records management systems and the geographical region where the metadata was recorded, the notes add.
The tool was a “proof of concept” that turned out to be unsuccessful and “therefore the project was ended,” said Cpl. Annie Delisle, an RCMP spokeswoman. “No data was retained.”
The Mounties would not say why the tool was ineffective, nor exactly how long it existed.
News of the RCMP information-sifting tool’s apparently brief existence follows a furor over the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s data analysis centre.
In early November, Federal Court Justice Simon Noel said CSIS violated the law by keeping electronic data about people who were not actually under investigation. His sharply worded ruling said the spy service should not have retained the information because it was not directly related to threats to the security of Canada.
Federal agencies are supposed to prepare a privacy impact assessment when a new program has implications for collection, use or disclosure of private information.
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Valerie Lawton, a spokeswoman for the federal privacy commissioner, said the watchdog did not receive such an assessment from the Mounties about the Telecommunications Analytical Platform. “We plan to follow up with the RCMP to obtain further details.”
The internal RCMP notes say the force’s use and retention of metadata is subject to federal laws, including criminal and privacy legislation, as well as applicable rules for keeping and disposing of information.
Wesley Wark, a historian and intelligence expert who teaches at the University of Ottawa, had not heard of the Telecommunications Analytical Platform and he suggested the RCMP notes raise as many questions as they answer.
Craig Forcese, a law professor at the same Ottawa university, said the RCMP seems to have “much more discretion” than CSIS to retain the information that it lawfully collects.
Having said this, Forcese argues security agencies should need a judge’s approval before fishing in large pools of data for leads or patterns.
“There has to be some sort of safeguard on the searching of it.”