Federal agents are not using the controversial Israeli spyware Pegasus, assures Canada’s Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, but another spy capable of extracting data from the smartphones of suspects under investigation.
“I want to be clear: Pegasus technology is not used by the RCMP,” the minister reiterated to the federally elected members of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHI).
This parliamentary committee on Monday opened the investigation into the multi-year use of spyware by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Law enforcement officials have publicly confirmed that they are able to remotely and covertly collect data from suspects’ phones — such as text messages, photos, camera footage, recordings of private communications, noise in microphone range, notes and device calendar entries.
The RCMP must obtain a warrant from a judge to use this software, dubbed an “investigative tool.” Neither the minister nor the RCMP wanted to reveal the name of the technology, which would have been in the federal police’s possession since at least 2012.
Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner read to the committee from a response from the RCMP that this software had been used for 32 investigations since 2017, in which a total of 49 devices were infected. These investigations were allegedly related to cases of kidnapping, murder and terrorism, among other things.
“It’s not that we’ve abused this technology,” she commented.
A series of articles the Citizenlab site, which is affiliated with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, reported the existence of spyware back in 2016 with the name Pegasus, created by the Israeli company NSO Group. Canada was one of 45 countries suspected of hosting people suspected of using this software.
BC Conservative MP Van Popta received an answer to a question tabled in Parliament in June this year proving the RCMP’s use of this type of software. The program is called Technical Investigation Services Covert Access and Interception Team or EASI SET. Bloc Québécois MP René Villemure then asked start the work of the parliamentary committee over the summer to try to find out more.
In a virtual appearance from Québec City, Minister Marco Mendicino repeated several times that the use of spyware is legal and judicially delimited. He broadly underscored the need for some “transparency” to ensure public trust, without revealing whether other federal agencies are also using this computer tool.
“When a technique like this is used, it is done in accordance with the charter [canadienne des droits et libertés]data protection laws and any other transparency measures. […] This form of surveillance is not the first resort, an everyday tool, but the last resort when all others have been tried,” he testified.
Members of the opposition have replied to the minister that this is tantamount to asking them to be taken at their word as they cannot learn more about the details of the process. An observation that also saddens Amnesty International: “As my grandmother would say, trust does not exclude control,” says Karine Gentelet, a member of the Amnesty Tech Collective, in an interview with Have to.
The professor at the University of Quebec in Outaouais believes that the RCMP should disclose what kind of technology it uses, knowing that similar software Pegasus has already been used as a mass surveillance tool by several countries around the world. “These are extraordinary means that impact human rights. What guarantees that there will be no slippage? She asks.
RCMP officials estimate that barely one in 10 investigators requesting the technique gets a permit, a testament to the rigor of the process, they say.
At the same time, they pointed out that hostile groups could very well misuse such tools and spy on Canadians. “You will be targeted. I have very few doubts about that,” said Deputy Federal Police Commissioner Mark Flynn, reminding elected officers that they are all holding a smartphone.
Stricter law required
Canada’s privacy commissioner said he would have preferred federal law enforcement to consult with him before they began using new and controversial spyware that was “very powerful and potentially intrusive”.
“The use of spyware raises privacy issues. […] It’s not that you can’t use the tool. Maybe the criterion [d’équilibre avec le respect de la vie privée] has been achieved, but we have to be sure,” said Philippe Dufresne during his appearance before the committee.
Despite having been in the field for several years, the inspector said he didn’t know this type of software was part of the police arsenal until he heard about it in the media this summer. He is scheduled to meet with RCMP officials later this month to verify that the necessary safeguards to protect privacy, a “fundamental right”, have been put in place. “We are not in a situation where we tap a landline phone. There is a lot of information in a phone [intelligent]. »
Mr Dufresne would like legislative reform to strengthen his office’s powers and give him a mandatory role in the ‘upstream’ assessment of the impact of such programs on personal life. For the time being, only a federal regulatory requirement for the assessment of data protection and a judicial examination of individual cases.
His predecessor, Daniel Therrien, is scheduled to appear before the same committee on Tuesday along with other experts on the matter.
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