A freedom of information request reveals new details on a secretive program to roll out surveillance equipment across Ontario.
Toronto street at night. Image: AL.Eyad/Flickr
At least nine police agencies in Ontario participated in a provincial program to deploy secret surveillance equipment in the province's largest cities, according to documents released by Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General under a freedom of information request.
Moreover, the documents reveal that local police were trained in "lawful access" techniques—a police euphemism for intercepting digital communications—in order to keep up with "rapidly changing technology."
These documents reveal that, in 2010, a grant was awarded to Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario (CISO), an arm of the provincial government, to pay for special training for police officers involved in the Provincial Electronic Surveillance Equipment Deployment Program (PESEDP). This is a secretive project whose goal is to equip cops with unspecified surveillance gear.
Although these documents don't name the specific police agencies involved, Motherboard previously reported that police in Toronto, York Region, Peel Region and Ottawa had each received hundreds of thousands of dollars in provincial grants since 2010 to reimburse costs of running the PESEDP. This program is briefly described in public documents as paying for activities to investigate organized crime.
"We're [moving] toward a society where the police are everywhere. The state's actions have to be transparent"
Civil liberties advocates in Ontario said officials need to explain not only what equipment is being deployed, but why the program is being kept secret from the public.
"The government needs to justify the secrecy [of the program], and a need for the technology itself," said Joseph Hickey, Executive Director of the Ontario Civil Liberties Association (OCLA), in a phone call.
"We're very concerned about the increase in [police] surveillance. We need to know what the [province] is doing."
The documents clarify who was paying to deploy secret surveillance gear across the province.
"The PESEDP [...] is funded by CISO," reads a summary provided by the Ministry of the Attorney General. It explains that the grant to CISO was provided by the Ministry's Civil Remedies for Illicit Activities (CRIA) Office, and that the money—$68,000—paid for a "Lawful Access Training, Research and Development Initiative" for police involved with the surveillance equipment program.
Last fall, the federal government opened a public consultation into the Anti-Terrorism Act, also known as Bill C-51, to address privacy concerns raised by civil liberties groups after the Act was passed in 2015. As part of the consultation, the feds released a green paper to "prompt discussion […] about Canada's national security framework", but critics say that the document subtly advocates for expanded police powers, particularly for lawful access.
Grant records show that 120 police officers were part of CISO at the time the grant was awarded, but it isn't clear how many cops participated in the lawful access training. Both CISO and CRIA provide grants to law enforcement agencies to pay for projects outside of regular policing budgets.
Brent Ross, spokesperson for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS), which oversees CISO, declined to answer questions about the training program or surveillance equipment deployment, based on what was found in the documents.
Previously, MCSCS refused to confirm or deny if a privacy impact assessment had been done for the PESEDP.
"We're [moving] toward a society where the police are everywhere," said Hickey of the OCLA. "The state's actions have to be transparent, [because] for every increase in surveillance capacity, democracy is diminished."
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.