Thursday, September 15, 2016

Do You Know You May Be Under Surveillance?

Last month I wrote a post on the increasing appetite of police departments to use mass surveillance techniques that make their job easier but represent yet another threat to the privacy rights of citizens. That post revolved primarily around a device called a Stingray, which indiscriminately surveils any cellphone within its multi-kilometre range, and it appears that authorities' appetite for snooping is growing insatiable.

A report, commissioned by the Telecom Transparency Project and the Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic and released to The Globe and Mail, explores the use of what are known as ISMI catchers.
An “IMSI,” which stands for “international mobile subscriber identity,” is a unique serial number now affixed to every smartphone’s chip set. It is one of several digital identifiers that police build modern investigations around if they can tie a specific number to a specific suspect.
A major problem is that our government does not seem eager to make such technology part of a consultation with Canadians on security issues. Last week, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced
he is soliciting the public’s views on the powers of police and spy agencies.

Mr. Goodale’s department posted a backgrounder stating that police are frustrated by criminals’ anonymous use of computers and phones.
Unfortunately that background, which provides context for the consultation, makes no mention of exploring the use of IMSI devices.
[M]ention of the technological equalizers that allow police to bypass corporate gatekeepers have been left out of the government’s consultation exercise. For some pro-privacy advocates, this is the conversation Canadians should be having.
“IMSI catchers pose a particularly insidious threat to real-world anonymity,” write Mr. Parsons and Mr. Israel, who are part of digital-research labs at the Universities of Toronto and Ottawa respectively. Their paper, which is titled “Gone Opaque,” points out that corporations that manufacture IMSI catchers often swear police to non-disclosure agreements.

They suggest the scope of IMSI catchers is currently limited only by the imaginations of government agents who use them. “They can be deployed to geolocate and identify individuals in private homes, to see who visits a medical clinic or a religious meeting, or to identify travelling companions,” the research paper says. “They can be deployed permanently at border crossings, airports or bus depots, or distributed at various points of a city so that movement becomes effectively impossible without a record of it being created.”
Like one of the commentators on this article, many will blithely suggest that if we have nothing to hide, why worry?
Can anyone provide the name of a law-abiding person, or non-terrorist sympathising individual in Canada who has been harmed by the use of IMSI devices?

If we are to be kept safe from both domestic and international terrorists and cyber-criminals, the government needs adequate tools.
Such a stance betrays a naivete that I find intellectually insulting, so narrowly focused as it is on a particular tree that it fails to see the forest.

Unless we are willing to give carte blanche to our government and the security forces that up to now were supposed to operate within confined and constitutional limits, unless we are willing to give absolute trust to those that have so much power over us, I suggest that all of us should be very, very concerned about our rights and freedoms which, as other countries will readily attest, are never truly secure unless citizens are very, very vigilant and engaged.

As one commentator on the article said,
You realize, right, that the aim of "terror" is to attack free societies to make them give up their freedoms. Democracy is not for sissies.


  1. I wish I could believe there was a real chance of this being fought back, these IMSI devices prohibited, but I cannot. In societal terms, the value of privacy has become discounted to the point of near irrelevancy. We have become far too accepting of authoritarianism wrapped in a velvet glove. I'm sure Goodale's own polling data bears all this out.

    1. You are likely quite correct, Mound. With people regularly and blithely checking off acceptance boxes on the Internet without reading the fine print, with so many putting out so much personal information on sites like Facebook, I fear we have become conditioned to thinking of personal privacy as a quaint and antiquated notion. I would couple that with the loss of critical thinking skills and largescale unwillingness to think deeply about issues.

  2. Sounds as though I should loan you my Blu-Ray copy of "Idiocracy"