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Politics

Parliamentary committee to begin study of RCMP’s use of cellphone spyware

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OTTAWA — A parliamentary committee will begin exploring the RCMP’s use of spyware on Monday, diving deeper into an issue that’s sounded alarms for privacy and civil liberties groups across the country.

The House of Commons ethics and privacy committee called for a summer study after the RCMP revealed its use of tools that covertly obtain data from devices like phones and computers.

In response to a written question tabled in the House of Commons in June, the RCMP disclosed it had obtained warrants to use tools that collect text messages and emails and can remotely turn on cameras and microphones in 10 investigations.

“We are talking about the most intrusive thing that exists,” said privacy and technology lawyer David Fraser.

“This would be like an order allowing the police to kind of put on an invisibility cloak and sit on your living room couch, or on your bedside table.”

Fraser said that’s why a high level of scrutiny should be applied to requests for this type of warrant.

“I think part of the important discussion that should be taking place here … would be to make sure that any technique that is as intrusive as this is subject to the highest standard of probable cause and that the police should have to convince the judge that other techniques have been tried and have failed.”

As an alternative approach, Fraser said the committee could look to the methods used when the Canadian Security Intelligence Service seeks a warrant for its investigations.

“(CSIS officials) go to a bunker in Ottawa and they meet in what amounts to a secret court,” he said. “It’s designated judges of the Federal Court who, ex parte — so without anybody on the other side — review applications for warrants under the CSIS Act that can be incredibly intrusive.”

Policing expert and Queen’s University professor Christian Leuprecht said technological change is outpacing the legal framework, and politicians are often unwilling to step in and adjust policies to help it keep up.

“This is the sort of issue that requires politicians to sit down and say, ‘OK, we have this technology, this is how we’ve decided you’re allowed to use it,'” he said.

Leuprecht agreed there should be a high level of scrutiny on the types of technology police are using, particularly given the RCMP’s power to arrest and detain.

“The Communication Security Establishment, this is a high-tech agency that is very well versed in how to use data and technology,” Luprecht said. “Whereas you might say with the RCMP, that’s not their primary bread and butter, so there’s a much higher risk that the RCMP might make the wrong decision, draw the wrong inferences.”

The committee has the opportunity to decide whether the current laws are sufficient to protect Canadians’ privacy. It could decide the RCMP needs to submit annual reports for further transparency.

Typically, police use of surveillance technology is kept secret, Fraser said, and he would like to see a framework put in place so that new technology has to go through independent scrutiny.

“I have zero comfort in imagining what is the process currently adopted by law enforcement in Canada to determine the appropriateness of the use of certain technologies.”

Brenda McPhail, the director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s privacy, technology and surveillance program, released a statement in late June asking a host of questions about how the technology is being used and why the privacy commissioner was not consulted on its deployment.

“What tools are being used, and who supplies them?” McPhail wrote. “Is it one of the many vendors of spyware known for selling such tools to authoritarian states who use it to target human rights defenders and journalists?”

Fraser said that is another important question for the committee to consider.

“If the police can remotely get into anybody’s smartphone, that means that there’s something defective with that smartphone that the police are exploiting and that bad guys can also exploit,” he said.

The “ethical thing to do” in that case, Fraser said, is for police or spy agencies to report any such loopholes to smartphone makers.

“They’re never going to do that unless they’re told,” he said.

Witnesses appearing during the scheduled two days of hearings include Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, the current federal privacy commissioner and his deputy, and RCMP officers who oversaw the use of spyware.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 7, 2022.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Alberta plans to resist federal efforts to seize prohibited weapons: Shandro

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CALGARY — The Alberta government is taking steps to oppose federal firearms prohibition legislation and the potential seizure of thousands of assault-style weapons.

Since May 2020, Ottawa has prohibited more than 1,500 different models of assault-style firearms from being used or sold in Canada.

It has committed to establishing a buyback program to remove those firearms from communities.

Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said he received a letter from the federal minister of public safety asking for police resources to begin confiscating firearms beginning this fall.

He said the federal government is “fearmongering” by labelling the guns as “assault style,” which Shandro called a move to scare Canadians unfamiliar with firearms.

Shandro said at a news conference Monday that many of the weapons do not pose unusual danger or possess any additional mechanical capability.

“This is politically motivated confiscation, pure and simple,” he said. “And so I responded to (Public Safety) Minister (Marco) Mendicino by telling him no. Alberta will not assist the federal government in this or any federal effort to strip lawfully obtained personal property from our residents.”

Shandro said Alberta will not agree to having RCMP officers act as “confiscation agents” and will protest any such move under the provincial-federal agreement that governs policing.

“Despite taking this step, the federal government may still direct the RCMP to serve as confiscation agents,” Shandro said. “To prevent this from happening, Alberta will formally dispute any attempt to do so by invoking Article 23 of that agreement.”

Alberta also plans to seek intervener status in six ongoing judicial review applications challenging the constitutionality of the legislation.

Mendicino’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Shandro’s position is supported by Alberta’s chief firearms officer.

“I have previously expressed strong opposition to the federal government’s plans to prohibit and confiscate some 30,000 lawfully acquired firearms from Albertans,” said Teri Bryant.

“The planned confiscations represent a fatal approach to reducing violence in Canadian society and are unwarranted and unacceptable infringements on the property rights and personal freedoms of Albertans.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 26, 2022.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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COVID-19

Positive Poilievre polling leads to talk of easing border restrictions: Tories

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By Laura Osman in Ottawa

The government was motivated to reconsider COVID-19 restrictions at Canada’s border because of the growing popularity of new Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, MPs from his caucus said Wednesday.

Several Liberal ministers confirmed they were discussing whether to continue the mandatory use of the ArriveCan app for international travellers and COVID-19 border restrictions like face masks which are set to expire on Sept. 30.

The cabinet has not made any final decisions but is set to meet Thursday afternoon.

That is when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau returns from the UN General Assembly, where he did not confirm whether his government is ready to lift, or change, any of pandemic measures.

“Every step of the way we have followed the recommendations and the best advice of medical experts, of public health experts, and we will continue to do that,” Trudeau said at a news conference at the United Nations on Wednesday night.

“I can assure you that when we make decisions on how we can move forward and change the situation around various tools that we have in place to keep Canadians safe, Canadians will be the first to know,” he said.

Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault also said Wednesday the government would “follow the science” when asked about the plans on Parliament Hill.

“We’re going to continue to make sure that as we open up the economy we do so in a systematic and respectful way,” he said.

Current border restrictions mean most foreign nationals are not allowed to travel to Canada unless they have completed a primary series of an approved COVID-19 vaccine, unless they qualify for an exemption. For most vaccines that means at least two doses.

Unvaccinated foreigners who fall into specific categories, such as temporary foreign workers, health-care workers, or crew on airlines or ships, are subject to mandatory arrival tests and a 14-day quarantine.

Vaccinated travellers, including Canadians, may also be selected for mandatory random testing — a system that public health officials have used as an “early warning system” for new variants of the virus entering the country.

Several Conservative MPs welcomed the possibility of ending COVID-19 restrictions for travellers Wednesday, but said they don’t understand what has triggered these discussions — aside from changing political tides.

“I think it might have something to do with the science changing Saturday night when Pierre (Poilievre) was coronated,” quipped Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu on her way into a Conservative caucus meeting.

Poilievre is a staunch opponent of vaccine mandates, and his position on COVID-19 restrictions was a popular element of his leadership campaign.

Saskatoon—Grasswood MP Kevin Waugh said the possible change could have something to do with the latest poll figures.

“Finally they have woken up, because we have a new leader and the polls are not favourable for the Liberals,” Waugh said. “I mean, they’re in trouble.”

Boissonnault rejected the Conservatives’ suggestions outright.

“The measures that we put in place during COVID have nothing to do with the Conservative party and leadership at that time, and nothing that they’re doing on their side affects how we’re governing, or the steps we’re taking to keep Canadians safe,” he said on his way into the Liberal caucus meeting Wednesday.

“As minister of tourism, I want to see as many people come here as safely as possible and so we’re going to continue to discuss this inside government.”

Federal ministers won’t say what recommendations they plan to bring to their cabinet meeting, but assured their decisions will be directed by science rather than politics.

“As everyone knows, these measures are always being reviewed on the basis of the evidence, prudence and the epidemiology,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Wednesday.

Conservatives have criticized the government for the lack of transparency about the evidence used to inform COVID-19 public health decisions.

A case study by international research group Pandemics and Borders published in April highlighted similar concerns.

“Claims about the use of scientific evidence to guide decisions have been extensively made but with limited disclosure of what constitutes that scientific evidence,” the researchers concluded after examining Canada’s pandemic border policies.

“The reliance on science-driven narratives, in this context, increased politicization in ways that ultimately undermined the use of science.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 21, 2022.

— With files from Stephanie Taylor and Mia Rabson in Ottawa and James McCarten in New York.

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