Spies more free to use cellphone surveillance tech without warrant, under court ruling – Technology & Science

A federal court judge has ruled that Canada’s domestic spy agency can continue to use contentious cellphone surveillance devices without a warrant, in some cases. 

For several years, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has used a device it calls a Cell Site Simulator (CSS) to collect information about cellphones and other cellular-capable devices — such as some laptops or tablets — during its national security investigations. 

The devices are perhaps better known as IMSI Catchers or Stingrays, and pretend to be legitimate cellphone towers in order to collect information. Privacy advocates have long criticized the technology for how it indiscriminately gathers data, not merely on the subject of an investigation, but on all of the cellular devices in its operating radius.

Depending on the device and surveillance approach used, an IMSI catcher can cast a wide net designed to harvest data transmissions from any cellular device within range, rather than target only the person of interest to law enforcement. It functions by fooling cellphones into believing it is a legitimate cellphone tower. (CBC News)

According to CSIS, the technology is used for two reasons: to link a cellular device with the subject of an investigation whose identity is often — but not always — already known; and to pinpoint a subject’s location. It is not used to capture communications.

But after mounting questions from federal court judges, who only learned the devices were being used by CSIS last year, a recent top-secret warrant application was used to weigh in on the lawfulness of the technique’s use. CSIS said previously it sometimes applies for warrants to use such devices and sometimes, for reasons that remain unclear, it has not. 

When does CSIS need a warrant?

In his decision, made public on Tuesday, Chief Justice Paul S. Crampton concluded that:

  • CSIS does not need a warrant to use the technology to link a cellular device with the subject of an investigation — in other words, by collecting the unique subscriber number (IMSI) and device number (IMEI).
  • CSIS does need a warrant if it wants to use the technology to determine the location of a device.

Use of the cellular surveillance technology was suspended in January while CSIS awaited the outcome of the case, but has since resumed, the agency said.

“For operational security reasons, CSIS is not in a position to further discuss how we use this technology,”…

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