After investigating for over a year, the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) are still unable to publicly identify those who have deployed electronic espionage devices in the national capital.
In April 2017, a CBC/Radio-Canada report revealed that IMSI catchers were being used in Ottawa and Montreal. These devices can capture cellphone data and listen to telephone conversations.
News that sophisticated spying tools had been deployed within range of Parliament Hill caused some tumult within the government. Following the CBC/Radio-Canada report, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced the launch of two investigations on April 4, 2017.
“Both the RCMP and CSIS are investigating this matter to make sure we get to the bottom of it and determine who exactly conducted this activity,” Goodale said at the time. “Obviously we are very anxious to determine who lies at the source of this activity.”
More than a year later, CSIS and the RCMP say their investigations aren’t finished yet and they’re unable to provide any further details.
So the mystery remains unsolved: who deployed those IMSI catchers in the national capital?
These devices imitate cellphone towers to attract signals from any mobile telephones located within half a kilometre. That allows them to capture a phone’s International Mobile Subscriber Identity, or IMSI, a unique number that identifies a subscriber. They also can capture the phone numbers of outgoing and incoming calls. Certain models can even listen in on conversations and read texts in real time.
The CBC/Radio-Canada investigation detected the presence of these devices inside a perimeter that encompasses Parliament, the Prime Minister’s Office, the embassy of the United States and the headquarters of the Department of National Defence, among other sensitive locations. IMSI catchers were detected also near the Montreal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport.
Cybersecurity experts pointed to foreign powers — among them China, Russia, Israel and the United States — as possible culprits. With the exception of the United States — which refused to comment — all these nations have denied having anything do to with the use of cell-tracking technology in Ottawa.
Washington more transparent than Ottawa
Goodale has declined to say whether he has ordered his department to adopt measures to detect and prevent the use of the illegal IMSI catchers in the capital over the last year. Scott Bardsley, a spokesperson for his office, said only that laws already exist that make the use of technologies that intercept or disturb communications illegal.
That lack of disclosure from the Canadian government stands in contrast to the situation south of the border. Recently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security publicly confirmed that a pilot project, run in Washington, D.C. from January to November 2017, detected activity that seemed to be consistent with IMSI catchers in the capital — including near the White House.
ESD America, a company in Las Vegas specializing in cybersecurity, has been used by Homeland Security to detect IMSI catchers. This company worked with CBC/Radio-Canada in its investigation in Ottawa.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office still hasn’t said if it’s doing anything to detect and prevent the use of cell-tracking technology in Ottawa.(Justin Tang/Canadian Press)
Reached by telephone, Les Goldsmith, president of ESD America, said he did not want to offer any details of his company’s dealings with the American government. But he said that “from our private sensors we have deployed for corporate customers across D.C., we have seen activities which are consistent with IMSI catchers near a number of rather sensitive buildings … near the White House, near the Senate and the Pentagon.”
Goldsmith said that the equipment is “more likely to be foreign, from the information we can see.”
Homeland Security said that it has not attributed such activity “to specific entities” and that “some detected signals were emanating from legitimate cell towers.”
The department had already highlighted the risks posed by IMSI catchers in its Study on Mobile Device Security, published in April 2017.
The study called IMSI catchers “a growing threat because they allow hackers, criminals and spies to track cell phone users and monitor or record conversations and text messages.”
The Canadian government apparently has never published an exhaustive study on the vulnerabilities of wireless communications.
Police forces are big uses of IMSI catchers
In response to the CBC/Radio-Canada report last year, the RCMP and CSIS acknowledged publicly for the first time that they regularly use IMSI catchers in their investigations. They also affirmed that their devices had not been active at the time of the CBC/Radio-Canada tests.
At least five other police services in Canada — the Ontario Provincial Police and police in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg — use IMSI catchers.
Many experts say that the deployment of these devices represents a risk to people’s privacy, and to individual safety. Mobile communications can be interrupted when an IMSI catcher is in operation, which can prevent a subscriber from making or receiving calls — even emergency calls, such as 911 reports.