August 16, 2017

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Winnipeg police using technology to intercept cellphone communications

The StingRay II is a cell site simulator used for surveillance. Winnipeg police confirmed it possesses the technology. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office / The Associated Press files)</p>

The StingRay II is a cell site simulator used for surveillance. Winnipeg police confirmed it possesses the technology. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office / The Associated Press files)

Winnipeg police have a device that can track and listen in on cellphones, but they won't say how they're using it.

In a statement, the Winnipeg Police Service said it "can confirm that it possesses a cell site simulator (CSS)."

"It is only deployed under judicial authorization, or in exigent circumstances. We are concerned that providing too much information about investigative techniques could jeopardize active investigations and threaten public and officer safety. As such, we will not be providing the number of CSS technicians employed by the WPS, nor the number of investigations conducted using this device in 2015 and 2016."

"It's all well and good for police to say 'trust us, we are protecting your privacy', but without having seen the guidelines, we don't know if the technology is being used appropriately."-Lawyer Scott Newman

CSS, also popularly known as Stingrays or IMSI catchers, are devices that act as pseudo-cellphone towers. When the device is used in the community, it sends out signals which cause cellphones, which are searching for the nearest cellphone tower, to instead connect with the CSS, giving police the ability to listen in and know where the phone — and therefore the suspect — is.

But the CSS also collects the same information from other phones of people in the area.

A police spokeswoman admitted one of the main criticisms of CSS devices is about loss of privacy to third-party individuals.

"The Winnipeg Police Service respects the privacy of innocent bystanders. The collected data does not include phone numbers or any other personal identifying information or data. The collected data relating to third parties is preserved and not accessed by anyone other than the CSS technicians, until ordered otherwise by an appropriate court," she said.

But lawyer Scott Newman, a spokesman for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, said he's still concerned about the use of the technology by police.

"Whether the technology is used appropriately, whether there's any civilian oversight of the guidelines they follow, and what steps are being taken about concerns of privacy," he said.

"It's all well and good for police to say 'trust us, we are protecting your privacy', but without having seen the guidelines, we don't know if the technology is being used appropriately."

It is important for the public to know what the guidelines for CSS use are and that police are following them, Newman said, noting the use of CSS is similar to when police request approval from judges to wiretap someone's phones in the sense that defence lawyers aren't at those hearings.

"We all know they won't tell us before they use it, but with wiretaps, we find out after," he said. "Under the criminal code, when the order ends, you have to divulge to the person.

"Do they have the same safeguards here?"

A spokesperson for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association has been quoted in media reports as being concerned that there isn't warrant process specific to CSS, so there aren't strict limits on how the technology is being used.

"It's nothing but a policy choice for some law enforcement not to use the content interception capabilities," Michael Vonn, the association's policy director, told CBC.

Michelle Falk, executive director of the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties, said they share the concerns of their B.C. counterparts.

"We think (CSS use) is totally fair as long as police have the proper warrants," she said.

"My concern is also about privacy, but if they are taking that into consideration, that's satisfactory."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Kevin Rollason.

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