The RCMP used cellphone-tracking technology in a way that was “not lawful” six times, Canada’s privacy commissioner said in a report released Thursday.
Mobile device identifiers (MDI) — also referred to as IMSI catchers — work by mimicking a cellphone tower to interact with nearby phones and read the unique ID associated with the phone’s International Mobile Subscriber Identity, or IMSI. That number can then be used to track the phone, and sometimes to intercept text messages or calls.
Between 2011 and 2016 the RCMP used IMSI catchers in 125 criminal investigations, 29 of which were in support of other Canadian law enforcement agencies, the report from Daniel Therrien’s office found.
In the majority of cases, the RCMP obtained a warrant to use their IMSI catchers. In 13 cases, no warrant was obtained. Seven of those were what the RCMP call “exigent circumstances” — cases requiring the police to act quickly in order to “prevent the loss of life or grievous bodily harm.”
The remaining six cases took place during a time when the RCMP was operating under the notion that no warrant was required — between March and June 2015.
The force made the decision to stop obtaining warrants to use the device after receiving guidance from the National Wiretap Expert Committee (NWEC), which provides legal advice to law enforcement and prosecutors.
In June 2015, the RCMP once again began requiring its officers to obtain a warrant before using the device.
Therrien’s office launched an investigation into the RCMP’s use of IMSI catchers in early 2016, after receiving a complaint from OpenMedia, a group that advocates for a surveillance-free internet.
The group wanted to know whether the RCMP was using the devices to collect tracking data, monitor large groups of people and intercept voice and text communications. It also wanted clarity around whether a warrant was required to use IMSI catchers, and under what circumstances.
Up until last spring, the RCMP was cagey about admitting its use of IMSI catchers. In April, a months-long CBC News/Radio-Canada investigation revealed that someone was using IMSI catchers in the area around Parliament Hill. At the time, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Canadian agencies were not involved and that the RCMP and CSIS were investigating. That investigation is ongoing.