Canada Spy Agency Suspends Use of Cellphone Tracking Machines

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has admitted using controversial cellphone surveillance technology both with and without warrant in recent years. But it has now suspended this and is reviewing its use of IMSI catchers, mobile device (MDIs) and cell-site simulators, the phenomenon that captured CBC’s attention and triggered the investigation.

Locations where cbc radio canada found imsi catchers

IMSI catchers mimic a cellphone tower to interact with nearby phones and read the unique ID associated with the phoneme, which is the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI). That data can be used to track the phone and its user.

“The policy and procedures for use of MDI devices to support CSIS operations is under internal review,” agency spokesperson Tahera Mufti wrote in an email. “The use of the devices was suspended until the recommendations of the review are completed.”

Earlier last month the RCMP revealed that it had been using IMSI catcher technology, and that prompted other police agencies across Canada to make similar “confessions” to the news outlet that first reported the practice.

The CSIS refused to disclose how frequently it had used the IMSI catcher technology, but the catch is that the spy agency was allowed to use it even without a warrant, as the CSIS Act allows it to do so.

The review of CSIS’ use of IMSI catchers follows another controversial data collection practice involving a little-known group called the Operational Data Analysis Centre (ODAC). There was a ruling on that case last fall, which found that the spy agency had collected and stored metadata of Canadians unrelated to its investigations for more than ten years.

In the wake of that data collection practice, the use of IMSI catcher technology could be more significant and be infringing on the privacy of many Canadians. Lawyer Micheal Vonn, policy director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, says if the spy agency’s bulk data collection has taught Canadians anything, it’s that “we should be very worried about what CSIS is doing with IMSI catchers.”