Ken Pole's picture
Parliamentary cell phones at risk for spying
Posted on Apr 04, 2017

April 4 – Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale confirmed that the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service are investigating a report that cell phone use around Parliament Hill is being snooped on through phones’ unique subscriber identify module or “simcard.”

The investigations were sparked by a CBC News/Radio-Canada report the previous day, based on “months” of research, that so-called “IMSI catchers” were being used to “track and spy on cellphones.”

An IMSI or international mobile subscriber identity is a unique usually 15-digit number which identifies individual cellphone subscribers. The first six digits in North America (five in Europe) identify networks where subscribers have accounts while the rest is allocated by service providers to specifically identify subscribers.

Catchers have been used by Canadian law enforcement and security agencies as well as by their counterparts elsewhere and even organized crime. They essentially mimic a cell phone tower to interact with nearby phones and read the IMSI, which can be used to gain access to text messages or to monitor calls.

Goodale told reporters before the daily House of Commons question period that he had spoken with RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson and CSIS Director Michel Coulombe earlier in the day. Both evidently confirmed that the monitoring “does not involve a Canadian agency like the RCMP or CSIS.” That said, the minister pointed out that the governments “do not provide running commentaries on operational matters.”

He acknowledged that “like most police and security services worldwide, the Canadian agencies do have this technology” but use it only in compliance with the law.  “CSIS and the RCMP have the legal and privacy issues that are involved here under active ongoing assessment and reassessment to ensure that in a field where technology is rapidly changing all the time, that our Canadian agencies […] are always staying squarely within the four corners of the law.”

He declined to speculate on who might be using catchers around the parliamentary precinct, saying that it was important to ensure that Canadians’ privacy rights were respected.

Asked whether anything specific was being done to ensure that parliamentary, defence and diplomatic security was protected against IMSI catchers, he replied that that’s what the RCMP and CSIS were trying to determine.

The Conservatives’ public safety critic Tony Clement, said the “greatest concern […] is that experts are saying that this could be as a result of either Russian or Chinese or other foreign agents accessing privileged information, secrets of government or political parties.”

They could have access to communications which are part of the government’s policy-making machinery. “It could lead to foreign powers having access to privileged information about what positions the government […] is taking or indeed the opposition parties are taking, and of course it also provides the potential for blackmail. If there are private communications that are intercepted that could be twisted and used against a parliamentarian, that’s not a good thing.”

After question period, where the issue wasn’t raised, Clement – who was “pleased” by Goodale’s confirmation of the investigations – said he had just returned from a cyber security conference in the United Kingdom. “We talked about a lot of these issues, and there’s no question that governments have to be a lot more robust in their countermeasures.

“It’s a constant spiral: when you do something to protect that information, the hackers figure out a new way to hack. So this is not something where you can say we now have a fix for this, it won’t happen again. Well, something else will be happening in the future. It’s a constant war, quite frankly, against enemies of our country’s national interest that we have to be waging.”

His New Democratic counterpart, Matthew Dubé, said that while he had “deep concern” about the prospect of surveillance, whether domestic or foreign, “the response from the government and different national security agencies hasn’t been very comforting.

“Sure, they say they don’t want to talk about operational procedures, but when we’re talking about potential spying on parliamentarians or embassies, certainly we’d expect them to be a little more transparent. […] We’re in a day and age where public trust in our national security agencies has been shaken. That’s why there’s been so many calls to improve and create more robust oversight and review of our national security agencies. . . .

“Reports like this only seek to create more mistrust on the part of the public towards our national security agencies, and more concern about whether their privacy is being protected. […] The government needs to be mindful of that and be more sensitive to that in the way that they respond to these kinds of situations.”

– Ken Pole