National Column: Reports could hide true police activity

by Alex Boutilier

Federal documents could mask the scope of actual surveillance activities

“Clear gaps” in how the federal government reports invasive surveillance practices may hide the true scope of police activities, according to documents prepared for Canada’s privacy watchdog.

Although the number of authorized wiretaps has “plummeted” since 2002, a January briefing for Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien suggests those numbers may mask police surveillance practices.

“It would be erroneous to infer from the drop in overall warrants issued that surveillance is affecting fewer individuals,” reads the document, obtained under access to information law.

“While federal authorities issued just over a hundred surveillance warrants last year (2014), they issued 792 notifications of surveillance to individuals previously targeted. From this, one can conclude more and more individuals are being named as targets in a warrant application.

“With a single warrant from the Federal Court (police) may list dozens of individuals for surveillance targeting.”

Public Safety is required to issue a report each year about the number of warrants sought to put individuals under surveillance – “wiretap” warrants that allow police extraordinary powers to keep tabs on individuals.

But police aren’t just bugging the phones of bad guys anymore. New technology allows law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance on a much wider scale.

The documents note that the decline in warrants “must also be kept in perspective against” newer surveillance powers that don’t have to be publicly reported, including production orders for account information, warrants for GPS location devices and requests for “metadata.”

Canada has also seen confirmed uses of “Stingray” technology, a device, called an IMSI catcher, that simulates a cellphone tower to force any mobile device in the area to connect to it. A recent Vice News investigation reported the RCMP has used IMSI catchers in public places for more than a decade, citing court documents.

The Star requested an interview with both Therrien and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale for this article. Neither was available Wednesday or Thursday.

But in an emailed response to the Star, a spokesman for Goodale said the minister is open to changing the system.

“Reporting is an important component of Canada’s system accountability for security agencies,” Scott Bardsley wrote.

“We’re open to consideration in this review (of national security oversight) of how to improve these elements to better achieve our two objectives (of) ensuring that our police and security agencies are being effective … and safeguarding the values, rights and freedoms of Canadians in a plural, open, democratic society.”

Lisa Austin, a law professor at the University of Toronto specializing in privacy issues, said calls globally for transparency about police surveillance have increased, not just for wiretap warrants, but for any extraordinary powers for law enforcement snooping.

But it’s not about pitting privacy rights against cops legitimately trying to do their jobs, Austin added.

“It’s not about preventing access to the information that the state needs to pursue law enforcement or national security,” Austin said Wednesday.

“I dislike it when the debate is about privacy versus law enforcement … because the law has never been that. It’s always been about balancing and accountability.”


104 Number of applications or renewals for surveillance warrants in 2014, the most recent year Public Safety has released data.

0 Number of applications not approved in Federal Court.

45 Number of surveillance requests for drug trafficking, the most frequent offence where surveillance is sought, compared to 30 for terrorism.

14 Number of police convictions in cases where surveillance was deployed.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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