After months of investigation, a CBC/Radio-Canada report has revealed that an unknown entity is using devices that track and spy on cellphones, called IMSI catchers or Stingrays, in the Parliament Hill area in the nation’s capital.
The devices mimic cell towers in order to trick nearby mobile phones in to connecting to them. Once connected, IMSI catchers can collect the data being transmitted from the phones, which could include location, calls, SMS and subscriber identity keys.
CBC investigation process
CBC conducted the investigation by using a device called the CryptoPhone that detects IMSI catchers made by German company GSMK. The device is disguised as a regular cellphone and emits an alert when a fake cellphone antenna intercepts its signal.
During tests in December and January, says CBC, the CryptoPhone set off alerts at locations around Parliament Hill including the Byward Market, the Rideau Centre shopping mall and CBC offices.
Since IMSI catchers can reach a radius of about half a kilometre in an urban setting, the CBC points out that the devices detected could reach into Parliament Hill, the Prime Minister’s Office in Langevin Block, National Defence headquarters and the U.S. and Israel embassies.
The crown corporation news outlet says it backed up its initial tests using “even more sophisticated equipment” called an Overwatch Sensor that confirmed the presence of an IMSI catcher near Parliament Hill.
Who is spying around Parliament Hill?
The question of who is operating these devices is still unclear, but the CBC spoke to an anonymous expert that “came from a Canadian security agency” who suggested two possibilities, one foreign and one domestic.
When it comes to foreign spies, the expert stated that the Russians had used IMSI catchers on Canadian soil before, relating that Russian agents identified IMSI numbers belonging to Canadian intelligence officers in order to track their whereabouts. The Russian Embassy refuted this claim to the CBC.
The expert also suggested that a domestic agency like Canada’s electronic spy agency, the Communication Security Establishment (CSE), might be behind the devices, using them to “monitor the network for protection purposes.” CSE told the CBC it is not allowed to do that.
Additionally, the Department of National Defence said it had no knowledge of IMSI catcher use, and the Ottawa Police Service, the RCMP and CSIS all gave similar responses.
There have been known instances of Canadian police services using IMSI catchers, however, including a notable incident revealed in April 2016 that showed IMSI catchers have been used by the RCMP since 2005 and could impede 911 calls.