Advertisement

Furey won’t investigate N.S. RCMP’s purchase of tool that can ‘unlock’ private friends lists

Click to play video: 'Furey won’t investigate N.S. RCMP’s purchase of tool that can ‘unlock’ private friends lists' Furey won’t investigate N.S. RCMP’s purchase of tool that can ‘unlock’ private friends lists
WATCH: Advocacy groups are calling on Nova Scotia's justice minister and attorney general to probe the Nova Scotia RCMP's purchase of a social media monitoring tool capable of bypassing some of Facebook's privacy settings. As Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, the RCMP are no longer using that technology, and Mark Furey says he's not considering an investigation at this time. – Dec 14, 2020

Nova Scotia’s justice minister says he won’t order an investigation into the Nova Scotia RCMP’s purchase of software that can extract timelines in “one click” and “unlock” social media friends lists that the user has made private.

Nova Scotia RCMP confirms it purchased a one-year licence for Web Identity Search Tool or WIST, beginning in August 2018, and did not renew it after the licence expired one year later.

“They have indicated they are not using the technology,” Justice Minister Mark Furey told Global News, after seeking more information from the RCMP. “I am satisfied with the response that I’ve received and we’ve been clear with the expectations of our law enforcement agencies.”

READ MORE: Halifax police confirm use of controversial Clearview AI facial recognition technology

WIST was developed by Toronto-based LTAS Technologies Inc., which makes social media investigation, data collection and web scraping products under the name “Harmari Tools.”

Story continues below advertisement

According to the Mounties, at the time of purchase, WIST “showed promise” at being able to identify, organize and export social media networks, including one’s associates and friends lists, allowing some open profiles to “become more visible.”

“However, by the time NSRCMP actually received the software in 2018 many privacy and security controls and policies had been changed making many of the software functions ineffective,” said Nova Scotia RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Andrew Joyce in an email.

Click to play video: 'RCMP in ‘full cooperation’ with privacy commissioner on review of Clearview AI: Blair' RCMP in ‘full cooperation’ with privacy commissioner on review of Clearview AI: Blair
RCMP in ‘full cooperation’ with privacy commissioner on review of Clearview AI: Blair – Mar 10, 2020

Information about WIST is no longer public on the Harmari Tools website, but an archived screenshot of the web page from 2016 bills the software as “one of the best Social Network Analysis tools for Facebook out there.”

Among its advertised capabilities were finding connections up to three “degrees of separation” for any Facebook user, the ability to “unlock friends on a private friends list,” and “one-click” timeline extraction.

Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: N.S. information commissioner says office legally hamstrung, short on resources

Nova Scotia RCMP, however, says it was not aware the software could be used to access information the user has elected to hide and did not use it that way during its one-year licence.

‘I do not believe we knew or were able to use that feature,” Joyce wrote.

Despite the tool’s capacity to bypass personal privacy choices, the Mounties never sought judicial authorization for its purchase, “as for our purpose everything the software collected was from public/plain view and we were not engaging anyone,” Joyce said.

Click to play video: 'RCMP announce organized crime busts in Halifax after public concern' RCMP announce organized crime busts in Halifax after public concern
RCMP announce organized crime busts in Halifax after public concern – Dec 10, 2020

Asked whether the use of the software was connected with the laying of any charges against anyone, the sergeant said not to “his knowledge.”

Story continues below advertisement

Furey said he was unaware the RCMP did not seek judicial authorization for WIST, but would not follow up with them on the matter, because he’s “not delving into those police operations.”

“My contact with them has been to confirm that they’re not using it and that any use of private information is sourced through appropriate legal means,” he said.

READ MORE: Canadian privacy watchdogs to probe Clearview AI’s facial recognition technology

The Nova Scotia RCMP’s purchase of WIST was first reported by The Tyee’s Bryan Carney.

The British Columbia-based publication obtained documents through access-to-information requests that listed WIST as one of the apps used by Nova Scotia RCMP on a “covert laptop” for investigating members of organized crime groups.

Earlier this month, that reporting prompted both the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and East Coast Prison Justice Society to write letters to Furey and the chair of the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners, urging them to take action against the use of such surveillance tools.

The groups are concerned no judicial authorization was sought prior to the purchase of WIST, and that its use may have violated the privacy, freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly and association rights of Canadians, without reasonable grounds to believe such searches would produce evidence of a crime.

Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: Cadillac Fairview covertly collected millions images of 5M shoppers across Canada: privacy commissioners

“There are clear procedures in place to ensure that your Charter protections around unreasonable search and seizure — which do things like protect your constitutional right to privacy — are complied with,” said Harry Critchley, co-chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, in an interview.

“The Privacy Commissioner of Canada has said that just because a piece of information is on social media, that doesn’t necessarily mean it ceases to be personal information and ceases to be covered under privacy legislation.”

Critchley further suggested that use of such surveillance tools has a disproportionate effect on marginalized and racialized communities.

Click to play video: 'Investigation finds Cadillac Fairview collected images of 5M shoppers' Investigation finds Cadillac Fairview collected images of 5M shoppers
Investigation finds Cadillac Fairview collected images of 5M shoppers – Oct 29, 2020

Nova Scotia RCMP declined to respond to those allegations, and Furey said he would respond to the BC Civil Liberties Association and East Coast Prison Justice Society directly.

Story continues below advertisement

To date, neither organization has received a response.

Natalie Borden, chair of the Board of Police Commissioners, told Global News she has requested a briefing from the RCMP on the matter, but could not comment further as no formal motion on the subject has been put before the board.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia RCMP investigate tampering with railway crossings

Global News reached out to Harmari Tools and LTAS Technologies for comment on this story by email and phone, but did not receive a response by deadline.

The Tyee reported that WIST was discontinued by LTAS Technologies and that Facebook sent a “cease and desist order” for WIST, in addition to removing LTAS Technologies and its CEO from its platform for violating their policies.

READ MORE: RCMP lay charges after organized crime bust in Halifax

Sponsored content