Public Safety Minister Defends RCMP Spyware Use on Cellphones and More

After the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) previously admitted to using spyware to invade citizens’ phones, laptops, and more, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino on Monday defended the Mounties’ actions before MPs (via The National Post).

The RCMP can use spyware — or “on device investigative tools,” as the agency calls it — to gain access to the texts, data, camera, and microphone on a device.

Mendicino told the House of Commons committee on Access to Information and Privacy that modern-day encryption has necessitated the use of invasive measures in extreme cases. In his testimony, Mendicino assured MPs that spyware is used rarely and always with judicial approval.

“There are rigorous protections which are put into place prior to the authorization of this particular technique, including applications which must go to a superior court judge,” said the minister.

According to the RCMP, intrusive tools have been used to access 49 devices across 32 investigations since 2017.

Mendicino pointed his finger at the same encryption that keeps bad actors from violating users’ privacy for aiding criminals in evading law enforcement.

“The central challenge right now for all state actors who are in the business of protecting Canadians, is that they are confronted increasingly with complex encryption, which is intended to subvert law enforcement,” he said.

The safety minister did not say what company’s spyware the force uses, but claimed that Israeli cyberintelligence company NSO Group’s controversial Pegasus software has never been used.

Privacy Commissioner Philippe Dufresne told MPs that his office should have been consulted on the use of such tools.

“It would be preferable, far preferable, that privacy impact assessment be done at the front end that my office be consulted and that this can be conveyed somehow to Canadians so that they are reassured,” he said.

Dufresne also suggested the federal government update the privacy act to require that government departments conduct impact assessments before adopting new technologies. The Privacy Commissioner will meet with the RCMP later this month to discuss its use of surveillance tools.

RCMP officials were also in attendance on Monday. They told MPs that warrants for the use of spyware are always highly specific and only issued for the most serious crimes, including murder and terrorism.

“It breaks down into several different types, most investigations related to terrorism or serious drug trafficking investigations, or there have also been five murder investigations,” said Sgt. Dave Cobey of the RCMP’s technical services division.

There are provisions in Canadian law that would allow the RCMP to use surveillance tools without a warrant in emergency situations. However, the agency maintained that has never happened so far.

Back in 2017, the RCMP was also found to be using mobile device identifiers, known as IMSI catchers, to track cellphone data during criminal investigations.