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Keying off Tyee RCMP Revelations, MP Angus Wants an Investigation

Exposé on Project Wide Awake web spying adds reasons to consider changing privacy law, Angus says.

Bryan Carney 19 Nov

Bryan Carney reports on privacy, technology and freedom of information and is director of web production at The Tyee. You can follow his very occasional tweets at @bpcarney.

Revelations in The Tyee’s recent report on the RCMP’s social media monitoring programs are “very concerning” and deserve investigation, says NDP MP Charlie Angus, a member of the Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics committee.

Angus said the Tyee report bolstered his sense that privacy laws may need changing to restrain police in how they use digital tools to spy on citizens.

Angus said he will be calling for a probe by the federal watchdog Office of the Privacy Commissioner into issues raised by The Tyee’s reporting.

**Update: Angus sent a letter to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner on Nov. 23, 2020 included below.

Internal documents show the force used national security exceptions to keep advanced monitoring software from the public and discussed unmasking private friends lists on Facebook.

The Tyee also found the RCMP listed “private communications” and those related to “protests” in its definition of encrypted “Darknet” sources it targets with surveillance software — some of which remain redacted in contract documents.

Training documents for members of its Project Wide Awake web-spying program include a slide saying, “You have no privacy. Get over it,” and a section headed “social media surveillance” — a description the force previously disputed applies to its activities online.

The Tyee published the report Monday based on 3,000 pages of internal documents obtained from an access to information request filed a year and a half ago.

“There’s a real question about oversight with the RCMP,” said Angus in response to the article. “If they were that fast and loose with so many basic principles of jurisprudence and justice, they could go much further. And that’s what I find very concerning.

“I’m going to be writing to the privacy commissioner to investigate,” said Angus.

582px version of Angus_letter-WideAwake1-2.png
Letter sent by MP Charlie Angus, a member of the Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics committee, to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Daniel Therrien.

There is a need for judicial oversight to ensure evidence gathering activities are not “fishing expeditions,” he said.

He cited concerns, in particular, about RCMP monitoring of “Indigenous protests and the targeting of Indigenous citizens who are rightfully standing up in the territorial treaty rights.”

“We’ve seen time and time again, when it comes to breaches of privacy,” the RCMP act “without asking permission” or “being honest about what they’re doing,” he said.

Revelations of the force’s illegal use of facial recognition technology Clearview AI after its denial it was doing so in 2019 were a “wake-up call” for Angus.

“Police were using it apparently in a widespread manner, with no oversight, without telling anybody, and then when they were pressed about it, we couldn’t even get straight answers.”

Angus said the RCMP’s use of the tech may be illegal. “You cannot have a police force that thinks it can ignore the law of the land."

He added, “We may need specific amendments into the privacy legislation to stop this from happening.”

The federal government is currently reviewing the Privacy Act, including the “oversight and enforcement framework under the act” and is inviting public consultation and submissions.

A privacy commissioner spokesperson told The Tyee last year that laws around privacy impact assessments — meant to provide oversight to government programs — need to be strengthened. The office can only provide non-binding recommendations.

Reached for comment on The Tyee’s latest report, Office of the Privacy Commissioner spokesperson Vito Pilieci said the RCMP committed to posting its policies on social media analysis on its website.

The office affirmed in its annual report that what people post or store online, even if publicly accessible, still retains a residual expectation of privacy that requires protection.

After The Tyee first exposed Project Wide Awake in March 2019, the privacy commissioner said the RCMP was completing a privacy impact assessment.

A year and a half later, the commissioner says the RCMP is still working on the assessment and in its “final stages of approval.”

Impact assessments are intended to be completed, with summaries posted publicly, before programs are implemented.

Project Wide Awake has been in operation since 2016, documents show.

The privacy commissioner did not directly comment on revelations in The Tyee’s report but a spokesperson said the office is currently gathering more information on the matter and discussions with the force are ongoing.

As the delay in response to its freedom of information request to the RCMP stretched to an eventual 18 months, The Tyee filed a complaint to the Information Commissioner, which oversees access requests.

On Tuesday, the Information Commissioner of Canada published a scathing report on the RCMP’s failures to respond to access to information requests, noting that the force had claimed it found no files in a request that later turned up thousands of documents when investigated by the commissioner.

The report found that over 4,179 access requests were incomplete past their statutory deadlines, or 92 per cent of the 4,532 total in the system.  [Tyee]

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