Use of spyware in Canada: review by a top secret committee

Parliament’s top-secret national security committee is launching a review of federal agencies’ ability to intercept private communications, on the heels of the RCMP revealing it has been using spyware in major investigations for decades.

On Thursday, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) announced that it was opening the investigation, with the aim of examining “the legislative, regulatory, policy and financial framework for the lawful interception of communications for security and intelligence activities”.

Deciding to undertake this work, the committee – made up of selected MPs and senators from various caucuses – said it also intended to examine the challenges of staying on top of the latest technologies such as encryption.

Encryption was one of the reasons cited by the RCMP for deploying software capable of remotely accessing microphones, cameras and other data from cellphones and computers as an investigative tool in dozens of investigations .

“Police must sometimes use advanced technological capabilities to overcome investigative obstacles such as those caused by encryption,” read RCMP documents tabled in the House of Commons in June.

The documents shed new light on the ability of the Police Force’s Covert Access and Interception Team to “covertly and remotely” access text messages and other private communications that cannot be collected using telephone tapping or “other less intrusive investigative techniques”.

The RCMP’s years-long and previously undisclosed use of software capable of secretly accessing suspects’ electronic devices has been the subject of a series of marathon Freedom of Information Committee hearings , Privacy and Ethics of the House of Commons earlier this month.

During a meeting, senior RCMP officers made a series of notable revelations about the extent of the RCMP’s use of “Integrated Investigative Tools” or ODIT.

While Public Security Minister Marco Mendicino has defended the use of these tools, saying he believes the “need to investigate” has been limited by law to only be allowed in “the most serious offences.” serious”, he refused to divulge the name of the software used. or whether other federal agencies under its portfolio such as the CBSA or CSIS deploy similar tactics.

During the hearings, privacy and civil liberties experts called the tools “extremely intrusive” and said the National Police’s hiding of this information from the public as well as the watchdog of Canada’s privacy for years is a clear reason for stronger oversight and regulation.

Now, NSICOP says it also plans to “review potential risks to the privacy rights of Canadians,” in relation to the use of these tools.

“Maintaining the ability of our security, law enforcement and intelligence organizations to lawfully obtain and use communications data while ensuring privacy and digital security is critical to protecting Canadians from ever-increasing threats. more complex,” NSICOP Chairman and Liberal MP David McGuinty said in a statement. .

He went on to say that having the NSICOP – which meets privately and requires all members have the highest level of security clearance – delve into the issue will allow organizations like the RCMP to “present the full of the problem”. they confront.”

Before the House committee began its summer special study, Liberal members suggested that given the sensitive nature and classified material of the subject, work might be better placed with the NSCIOP, while MPs of the opposition have indicated their intention to continue further meetings behind closed doors. with the relevant federal police and investigators so that they can gather more information about the agencies’ use of spyware.

The high-level watchdog was established in 2017 and mirrors similar committees set up in other Five Eyes countries. NSICOP reports to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then tables declassified versions of its findings in Parliament.