The RCMP Used Police Databases and Social Media to Track Aboriginal Protestors

The RCMP then made their identities known to front-line officers.

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Nov 10 2016, 9:21pm

Image: Flickr/The Indignants

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police used law enforcement databases and social media to identify indigenous protesters and then made their identities known to front-line officers, new documents show.

"The year 2013 saw an increase across Canada in Aboriginal protests," an RCMP document from 2015, obtained through an information request by Carleton University professor Jeffrey Monaghan and researcher Andy Crosby, states.

In March of 2014, according to the document, the RCMP put a call out to its divisions across Canada and local police departments to hand over any information in their databases that might help the RCMP identify and track aboriginal protesters.

This initiative was known as Project SITKA, and with this data from police and social media, the RCMP identified 313 activists across the country who attended protests "opposing natural resource development, particularly pipeline and shale gas expansion." Those who attended anti-capitalist protests, and protests regarding missing and murdered indigenous women, were also targeted.

"There's really no justification for this sort of extensive surveillance operation"

The RCMP then picked out 89 individuals who were found to "meet the criteria for criminality," the document states, and created what are described as "protestor profiles" for each of them. These profiles were "made available to front-line officers divisional analysts and law enforcement partners" through the RCMP's automated criminal intelligence database.

"The RCMP investigated individuals who are standing up for rights that are fundamental to their culture and identity, so that's a profound concern," said Brenda McPhail, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association's surveillance project.

The RCMP did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment, but we will update this article when we hear back.

The RCMP has previously kept tabs on indigenous activists online, but Project SITKA was not known to the public until now. The profiles the RCMP prepared included photos of the individuals, information on which groups and individuals they were affiliated with, what kind of vehicle they drove, and more.

A stock protestor profile. Screengrab: RCMP document

"They basically mapped out these 313 individuals—what demonstrations they went to, which organizations that they're involved with—and they had five years of data to do this with," said Monaghan in an interview. "We don't really know all the data storage practices, but being able to go back and see who people are associated with and what they're doing, that's what we're seeing here."

"It really shows us how extensive the amount of information being kept on people is," Monaghan continued.

Limits on the kinds of information that law enforcement agencies in Canada can retain recently became the focus of intense public scrutiny after a federal court ruling revealed the existence of a secret CSIS metadata collection program that illegally retained citizens' identifying information.

Notably, none of the individuals identified in Project SITKA had actually committed a crime when they became the subject of scrutiny by the RCMP. The RCMP further conclude that "there is no known evidence that these individuals pose a direct threat to critical infrastructure."

"It was a major intrusion into a lot of people's private activities and their movements that ended up generating absolutely no useful intelligence," The CCLA's McPhail said. "There's really no justification for this sort of extensive surveillance operation."

The civil rights group Canadian Journalists for Free Expression condemned the program's existence on Wednesday.

It's unclear whether Project SITKA continues to exist, a question of particular importance given recent aboriginal protests around the construction of the controversial Muskrat Falls dam and the LNG gas project in British Columbia.

The RCMP document describing Project SITKA, however, recommends that such police practices to keep tabs on indigenous activists continue.

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