RCMP Admits to Using Spyware to Access Canadians’ Smartphones and Laptops: Report

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) last month admitted to using spyware to gain access to citizens’ smartphones, laptops, and the cameras and microphones on them in a filing with parliament — reports The Guardian.

The tools, which have been used on at least 10 investigations between 2018 and 2020, give the police access to text messages, email, photos, videos, audio files, calendar entries and financial records. The software can also remotely turn on the camera and microphone of a suspect’s phone or laptop.

According to the filing, the RCMP’s special investigative teams can resort to using these “on-device investigative tools” when they have exhausted less invasive means of collecting data.

The RCMP argued the use of spyware has become necessary as new security measures like end-to-end encryption have made it “exponentially more difficult for the RCMP to conduct court-authorized electronic surveillance.”

However, this kind of unauthorized access is exactly what features like end-to-end encryption are designed to prevent. Earlier this week, Apple even announced ‘Lockdown Mode’ — a new, more extreme security feature to help protect iPhones, iPads, and Macs from targeted spyware.

Privacy advocates and security researchers have spoken out against the practice on principle. What’s more, the RCMP has a muddied history with the use of technology for surveillance.

Back in 2017, the police agency admitted to using mobile device identifiers, known as IMSI catchers, to track cellphone data during criminal investigations.

Critics are pushing for more government oversight and regulation over the RCMP’s use of surveillance technology.

Ron Deibert, a political science professor at the University of Toronto and head of Citizen Lab, said the use of spyware gives the RCMP an “extraordinary window into every aspect of someone’s personal life,” adding that it is akin to “nuclear-level technology.”

Deibert’s Citizen Lab and The Guardian have played key roles in exposing various countries’ use of Israeli cyberintelligence company NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. The RCMP, however, did not disclose who it is purchasing surveillance software from in its filing.

“That’s my biggest unanswered question,” Deibert said. “Because we know there are some companies that are horrible when it comes to due diligence and routinely sell to governments that use it for grotesque human rights violations.”

NSO Group’s Pegasus, for example, has been used to spy on journalists, minority groups, political figures, and more.