News from ICLMG

New revelations of RCMP online mass surveillance raise troubling privacy, civil liberties concerns

RCMP must immediately halt use of new spy software and release audit of surveillance practices, says civil liberties coalition

Sept. 28, 2020 — The International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG) is deeply concerned by the latest revelations of the RCMP contracting firms to engage in widespread online surveillance and so-called “proactive” identification of threats.

On Sept. 23, the Tyee revealed that the RCMP has awarded a new contract to Babel Street, a US-based company that uses algorithms to track, analyze and translate online communications. It is used extensively by law enforcement agencies in the United States. The RCMP has said in the past that it uses such software to move from “reactive” policing to the controversial practice of “proactive” policing: identifying potential threats before they occur by surveilling and collecting information on individuals who are not suspected of having engaged in criminal activity.

“It is completely unacceptable that the RCMP is moving forward with what can only be described as online mass surveillance,” said Tim McSorley, National Coordinator of the ICLMG. “We are calling on the RCMP to immediately halt the use of Babel Street and other surveillance software used in an attempt to predict crime, and to release the audit of its online surveillance program the force committed to months ago, but never made public. We also believe that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada should open an investigation into the RCMP’s online activities.” Mass surveillance can never be justified, added McSorley, regardless of what may be included in the RCMP’s report.

“We are calling on the RCMP to immediately halt the use of Babel Street and other surveillance software used in an attempt to predict crime, and to release the audit of its online surveillance program the force committed to months ago, but never made public.”

This latest revelation is one in a long line of reports from the Tyee, the Canadian Press, the CBC and others documenting the RCMP’s use of online media monitoring tools to spy on internet users. In one case, it was revealed that the RCMP collected information online to create detailed profiles of anti-mining activists, despite their never being suspected of planning, let alone committing, a crime.

In 2019, the Tyee also revealed the existence of Project Wide Awake, an RCMP initiative to monitor online communications, including on a wide range of social media sites, in order to engage in “proactive” policing to “help detect and prevent a crime before it occurs.” Based on the RCMP’s invitation for bids that led to the Babel Street contract, it would appear that this new tool is meant to compliment and expand on the Social Studio software they were already using.

Following the outcry caused by the Tyee’s report in 2019, the RCMP announced it would undertake an audit of its online surveillance practices, and release details publicly. While the force stated the review would be completed by summer 2020, it was never shared publicly. In other reports, the RCMP also committed to a privacy impact assessment (PIA) of its online surveillance – which is supposed to be completed before new activities come into effect – that would be filed with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) and a summary made public online. No such summary is on the RCMP website, and it is unclear whether the PIA has been submitted to the OPC

“The RCMP claims its surveillances activities respect the law, and promises transparency, but then continues to shroud its work in secret,” said McSorley. “The force must come clean about how and why it is spying on people in Canada so we can take appropriate steps to protect our rights.”

According to the RCMP, it intends to use this new software to broaden its monitoring of online communications, ranging from group buying sites like Groupon to online collaboration sites like Wikipedia, location-based sites like Foursquare and social bookmarking sites like Digg, on top of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. It is also looking to use the tool to analyze text within images, to analyze sentiment of online messages, and to be able to analyze the information collected based on location.

This extensive surveillance and collection of individuals’ online activities raises troubling questions about the impact on fundamental rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In their recent report, To Surveil and Predict, researchers Kate Robertson, Cynthia Khoo, and Yolanda Song at the University of Toronto’s CitizenLab documented extensively how algorithmic policing and mass surveillance can violate and undermine the rights of individuals and entire communities. These tactics result in increases in policing of already over-policed populations, particularly BIPOC communities, further entrenching systemic racism. Moreover, predictive policing and mass surveillance undermine the right to privacy; freedoms of expression, association; freedom from discrimination and the right to equality, to due process; and freedom from arbitrary detention.

For several years, the ICLMG coalition has raised concerns about the growth and impact of mass surveillance in Canada, particularly under the premise of combating terrorism and other public safety threats.

“In our coalition’s work, we have seen the negative impacts stemming from state surveillance of Muslims and Arabs in Canada, and of Indigenous people. But this clearly goes further, with implications for racialized and marginalized communities across the country,” said McSorley. “Once again, if the RCMP and the Canadian government are serious about addressing systemic racism and protecting civil liberties, they would act immediately to halt this over-reaching surveillance program, and commit to ending mass surveillance.”

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New revelations of spy agency’s unlawful activities and misleading courts shows need for concrete action and accountability

OTTAWA, Sept. 2, 2020 – A federal court decision released at the end of August has revealed yet another case of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) engaging in potentially illegal activities to gather intelligence in support of a surveillance warrant. The decision also reveals that in applying for the warrant, CSIS not only withheld exculpatory information regarding the warrant’s target, but also misled the courts in how it presented other information.

The new revelations came as part of the ongoing efforts by lawyers for Awso Peshdary, charged with terrorism offences, to have a surveillance warrant issued against him in 2012 quashed. Presiding judge Justice James O’Reilly had originally dismissed the request in 2018, but is now reconsidering his decision given the new evidence.

This egregious breach of CSIS’ duty of candour – to make full and frank representations to the courts when applying for a warrant in an ex parte (secret) hearing – is in addition to another scathing Federal Court decision from Justice Patrick Gleeson, made public on July 16. In that decision, Justice Gleeson found that CSIS had also misled the courts, this time regarding illegal actions carried out as part of their intelligence gathering activities.

“In less than two months, we have two court decisions revealing CSIS engaged in potentially illegal activities and withheld information from the courts,” said Tim McSorley, national coordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG). “This is utterly unacceptable. Government agencies cannot be allowed to lie to the courts time and again. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and CSIS Director David Vigneault must take immediate action to put an end to this abuse of power.”

The coalition is calling on Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to immediately determine whether those who were involved in illegal activity or misleading the courts are still employed by either CSIS or the Department of Justice, and to publicly state the repercussions they have faced in light of their actions, up to and including termination of employment and judicial proceedings.

“These actions by CSIS officers not only undermine the justice system, but also demonstrate a deep disregard for the fundamental rights and freedoms of Canadians and people in Canada. No one should be subject to surveillance or other measures based on misleading information or as the result of illegal activities,” said McSorley.

The July federal court decision called for a comprehensive external review “to fully identify systemic, governance and cultural shortcomings and failures that resulted in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service engaging in operational activity that it has conceded was illegal and the resultant breach of candour.”

The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) has since been tasked by the federal government to undertake this review. While this is a positive step, the duty to be candid in representations to the court is not new. In 2010, two years before the warrant in question was granted, the Supreme Court of Canada wrote, “When seeking an ex parte authorization such as a search warrant, a police officer — indeed, any informant — must be particularly careful not to “pick and choose” among the relevant facts in order to achieve the desired outcome. The informant’s obligation is to present all material facts, favourable or not.” (R v Morelli, 2010 SCC 8, [2010] 1 SCR 253 at para. 58.)

It is important to note that in these ex parte hearings, there is no opposing counsel present to challenge the claims made by CSIS officers or government counsel. This makes the necessity of being candid and truthful even more important.

“We trust that the forthcoming report from the NSIRA will help shine a light on the depth of these issues, and present solutions for moving forward, including addressing the lack of opposing counsel during ex parte hearings. However, the fact remains that the courts have identified instances where it is already clear that federal officers went too far and undermined both the justice system and threatened the rights of Canadians. There must be accountability and repercussions for those actions to ensure they do not occur again,” said McSorley.

Read the full letter to Minister Bill Blair here.

 

Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. Here at ICLMG, we are working very hard to protect and promote human rights and civil liberties in the context of the so-called “war on terror” in Canada. We do not receive any financial support from any federal, provincial or municipal governments or political parties. You can become our patron on Patreon and get rewards in exchange for your support. You can give as little as $1/month (that’s only $12/year!) and you can unsubscribe at any time. Any donations will go a long way to support our work.panel-54141172-image-6fa93d06d6081076-320-320You can also make a one-time donation or donate monthly via Paypal by clicking on the button below. On the fence about giving? Check out our Achievements and Gains since we were created in 2002. Thank you for your generosity!
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