Stingrays: Are the police spying on us?

When we asked the Vancouver Police Department if they were using Stingray surveillance devices in their investigations, we weren’t expecting the response we received.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

In short, they refused to answer us.

The level of secrecy around their use is deeply concerning. Here’s why:

A Stingray is a surveillance device that can simulate cell phone towers to track phones’ locations and intercept voice and text communications. 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. The same might be true here in Canada.

There are a lot of reasons for the police to use this type of surveillance device. Some of them are totally legitimate and in the public interest. For instance, they could use the Stingray to locate a missing person or someone who has been abducted by tracking their cell phone location or the location of the abductor.

However, we know from experience that when police have access to powerful surveillance tools and vast amounts of information they are also prone to misuse and abuse. 

In British Columbia, the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner admitted to receiving a couple dozen cases a year where officers breached an individual’s privacy rights by illegally accessing databases. The Stringray device, which could potentially be used to create massive stores of meta-data on citizens to be searched at a later date by any officer, raises those same concerns.  

How and if such devices should be deployed should be part of rigorous public conversation.

How will citizen’s privacy rights be protected? How will the data collected be used? What judicial oversight is needed?

The police refusal to address these questions is not acceptable. Police accountability, including surveillance and privacy issues, is a key component of Pivot’s work. We’re also committed to ensuring:

  • Equal protection for everyone under the law
  • Ending the criminalization of poverty
  • Eliminating harmful and unjust use of force

We’ve appealed the Vancouver Police Department’s refusal to reveal if they’re using mass surveillance devices. We hope the province’s privacy commissioner will agree that it’s important for the public to know.

Every Canadian should be concerned if their privacy is at risk. 

That’s why we’re also going to ask police departments across the country if they’re using these devices by filing more FOI requests.  

We want to know: what are the police hiding from us?