Vancouver, B.C. [November 12]—The Vancouver Police Department has refused to disclose documents, or even acknowledge the potential existence of, a highly controversial surveillance device known as the StingRay.
Pivot Legal Society filed a freedom of information (FOI) request for the VPD to release any documents or communications pertaining to the purchase of the device and whether the VPD has been using of the device. The VPD denied the request on the basis that its release would “harm the effectiveness of investigative techniques and procedures currently used, or likely to be used, in law enforcement.” The VPD would also “neither confirm nor deny the existence of records.”
Commonly referred to as the stingray, the device can simulate cell phone towers in order to trick nearby mobile phones into connecting to them and revealing the phones’ locations. Large groups of people can be monitored and their mobile phone’s incoming and outgoing calls recorded. The surveillance device is also capable of intercepting the content of voice and text communications.
“Citizens have a right to know whether or not our local police forces are engaging in mass surveillance, and disclosure of the existence and use of this device is vital in ensuring that individual Charter rights are protected,” says Douglas King, the lawyer with Pivot Legal Society who filed the FOI request. “The use of this device on people or groups of people without judicial authority represents a massive breach of the public trust.”
“We simply have to assume that refusing to disclose whether these spying devices are being used means “Yes they are.” This information denial is effectively a denial of answers to the critically important questions that follow: how they are being used and with what degree of compliance with citizens’ Charter rights,” said Micheal Vonn, Policy Director of BC Civil Liberties Association. “It is totally unacceptable that the VPD are not willing to be accountable for the use of such devices and the rights violations that are likely to flow from their use.”
The use of the surveillance device by police departments in Canada has not been confirmed, however, the device has been in use in various jurisdictions in the United States and put into use by police only upon agreeing to a non-disclosure agreement that prohibits the department from even acknowledging its existence. This has proved problematic when evidence obtained from the use of the device is then brought before the courts, but details of the device cannot be released.
“Stingray devices are designed to spy on everyone in a given area, and their use would clearly contravene the Charter,” said David Christopher, communications manager for OpenMedia. “We all have a basic right to live our lives without fear of being watched by our own government, and this development reinforces the need for a comprehensive overhaul of privacy safeguards.”
Pivot Legal Society has sent in an appeal to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) appealing the decision of the VPD to withhold the documents. Earlier this year, in a similar decision, the OIPC ruled that the Ministry of Justice had to reveal the brand name of forensic surveillance software it used during an investigation, stating that release of such information to the public could not reasonably be expected to cause specific harm.