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Privacy Commissioner Launches Investigation of RCMP Internet Unit

The probe comes after Tyee reports on Project Wide Awake and web spying. Here are some questions to pose to the force.

Bryan Carney 14 Dec

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.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has launched an investigation into the RCMP’s Tactical Internet Operational Support unit and Project Wide Awake, the unit’s advanced web monitoring program using digital tools it kept secret.

The office is probing “the RCMP’s collection of the personal information of Canadians under Project Wide Awake,” deputy commissioner Brent Homan of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner confirmed in writing to NDP MP Charlie Angus.

Angus, a member of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, called for an investigation in a letter sent Nov. 23, following Tyee reports exposing Project Wide Awake and related programs at the RCMP.

“I have grave concerns about the level of secrecy and duplicity the RCMP has gone through to hide their activities into procuring and using these tools to gather information on Canadians,” said Angus in the letter.

He added, “I am very concerned that these internal documents appear to contradict how the force characterized Project Wide Awake to your office.”

The files obtained by The Tyee revealed that the RCMP’s Tactical Internet Operational Support unit requested “national security exceptions” which enable it to hide contracts for software it acquired. The force argued if the software was publicly procured, its capabilities might be defeated by people targeted for spying.

At the same time, the RCMP emphasized that its software only seeks “open source” information online, implying that its sources were only those in the public domain.

However, The Tyee investigation reveals that the force may consider any information it can acquire online, by any means, to be “open source.”

Documents show that the RCMP purchased a license for a program that “unlocks” hidden friends for Facebook users who have set their friends to be private. The provider of Web Investigation Search Tool, used by police around the world, discontinued its operation after a Tyee report.

The RCMP also listed “private communications” and those from “political protests” in a diagram of “darknet” sources, which it aimed to target with a “dark web crawler” and monitoring software.

The internal documents obtained by The Tyee also contained references to programs that appear related to digital surveillance but outside of Project Wide Awake, including ones named Cerebro, Sentinel and Search, and a reference to “expansion of biometrics”.

Here are some questions about the RCMP’s Tactical Internet Operational Support unit the privacy commissioner inquiry might seek to resolve:

What are the RCMP programs Cerebro, Sentinel and Search?

Might the force be using more sophisticated information gathering methods than it has acknowledged?

The RCMP mentioned programs Cerebro and Sentinel and Search alongside Project Wide Awake during a Tactical Internet Operational Support unit meeting agenda. The force did not respond to questions posed by The Tyee on these programs. What are the function and capabilities of these programs?

What is the purpose and scope of the RCMP’s program 'expansion of biometrics'?

RCMP training materials associated with the RCMP’s Tactical Internet Operational Support unit and Project Wide Awake included screenshots with a button labelled “image biometrics” and “audio biometrics” — terms associated with facial and voice recognition. The force also listed a project called “expansion of biometrics” in its progress reports.

The Tyee previously obtained the RCMP’s contract for controversial facial recognition software Clearview AI after the force denied it was using it.

The Tyee has asked the RCMP about the “biometrics” reference in the documents but the force did not respond.

851px version of RCMPSoftware.jpg
RCMP training materials included a screenshot of software that contains a button called 'image biometrics' — a term associated with facial recognition. Source: Internal RCMP documents obtained by The Tyee.

What digital tools and features did the RCMP purchase along with Babel X from Babel Street security software maker?

The Tyee obtained RCMP contract documents for internet monitoring suite Babel X. Babel X allows police forces to track and analyze sentiment, emotion and intent in postings throughout the web including sites requiring login credentials, intentionally encrypted (dark web) or otherwise hidden from search engines (called “deep web”), according to the company that makes it, Babel Street.

The RCMP’s contracts with Babel X obtained by The Tyee indicate the force purchased “optional goods” from Babel Street as well — additional software or services. This section was blanked out in the FOI documents released, however, hiding those additional services.

Does the RCMP circumvent privacy with other tools?

Documents showed that the RCMP listed a tool which exposed friend lists Facebook users expected would remain private. The Tyee asked if the RCMP uses any other means to circumvent expectations of privacy but did not receive an answer.

What is the RCMP 'dark web crawler' referred to in emails?

The RCMP listed “private communications” and those related to “political protests” among components in its diagram of the dark web — encrypted and hidden parts of the internet — and also mentioned it was building a “dark web crawler.”

What “capabilities” was the RCMP concerned could be 'defeated' if its software purchases were made public?

Since the RCMP argues that it only seeks “open source” data on the web — content posted with no expectation of privacy — how might its tools and techniques being publicly known change the behaviour of anyone the force targets?

Was the RCMP request for a national security exception for its advanced social media analytic platform begun in February 2019 denied? If so, what were the reasons given?

Documents show the RCMP sought a national security exception for its purchase of Babel X in 2020 so that the software would not be revealed to the public. But months later, procurement for an advanced tool was posted on the RCMP’s site which requested features closely resembling advertised features of Babel X. The force selected Babel X as the bid winner.

This suggests the force was denied a security exception. If this is so, why were previous licenses of Babel X, which the force used in Manitoba and Quebec, allowed to remain secret? Why, too, were purchases of other software tools, such as SAS or Social Studio on which the RCMP built advanced additional features, allowed to remain secret?

RCMP on web spying roots

A spokesperson for the RCMP told The Tyee in an email that the force was prompted to equip itself for social media spying by the MacNeil Report, an independent review of the murders of three officers in Moncton in 2014. The force, said the spokesperson, proceeded to procure “a real-time social media analysis tool to help identify operational risks, improve public communication and ultimately enhance the safety of the public and communities we are entrusted with policing.”

The RCMP is in the process of an audit it requested of its open source information program and the results will be posted soon, said the spokesperson.  [Tyee]

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