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Canadian Police Don’t Want to Talk About How They Spend Surveillance Dollars

Police in Ontario’s biggest cities have received hundreds of thousands of dollars for surveillance equipment. We can’t tell you how they spent it.

Police in Ontario's biggest cities have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to deploy unspecified surveillance equipment as part of an obscure provincial program. The problem is, no one knows exactly what they're buying with all that money.

Police in Toronto, Ottawa, and the municipalities of Peel and York (near Toronto) have received hundreds of thousands of dollars each to pay for the Provincial Electronic Surveillance Equipment Deployment Program (PESEDP). This little-known project is described by police as "funding for the purchase of, or improvements to, equipment used in the investigation of organized crime", which doesn't reveal much. Mentions of the program can be found in publicly-available meeting agendas and reports dating back to 2011.

Between February and June of this year, the Toronto police spent $100,000 on PESEDP, although they won't publicly offer any specifics. Documents produced by the York Regional Police Services Board and the Peel Police Services Board show that both forces received $200,000 each to fund PESEDP, in 2011 and 2013, respectively. York Regional Police got another $100,000 in 2016.

"Police services are investing in a range of new surveillance technologies"

A 2016 report detailing the latest payment to the York Regional Police notes that the force has agreements with the Ontario Provincial Police to "share services to intercept personal communications" and "to monitor personal communications," both expiring in November of 2017.

Tamir Israel, staff lawyer at the University of Ottawa's Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, says that the PESEDP money could be spent in a number of ways. "Police services are investing in a range of new surveillance technologies, from license-plate recognition devices, to facial recognition or IMSI catchers," Israel told me over the phone.

The Ottawa Police Service, Toronto Police Service and the York Regional Police all refused to answer questions about PESEDP. Toronto Police Service spokesperson Mark Pugash replied to questions about PESEDP by stating that "[Toronto Police Service does] not discuss investigative techniques or equipment."

Although none of the police services I contacted would speak about what kind of surveillance equipment the program is 'deploying,' local forces across the country have demonstrated interest in advanced cyber surveillance tools in the past.

"A year or two ago, Hacking Team—an outfit in Italy that sells malware and network intrusion tools—got hacked, a lot of their internal communications came [out], and there was some communication with Canadian police agencies," Israel said. "It didn't lead to anything at the time in terms of purchasing [Hacking Team] services, but it shows that there is an interest in that type of capability."

Police get funding for PESEDP through Proceeds of Crime grants that are administered by Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario, and the provincial Ministry of the Attorney General Civil Remedies for Illicit Activities office. Proceeds of Crime grants are funded by Ontario's civil asset forfeiture program, a controversial set of laws that give police the power to seize assets from individuals and organizations without securing criminal convictions or laying criminal charges. Ontario was the first province in Canada to pass a civil asset forfeiture law in 2001.

Since then, seven other provinces have passed similar laws, leading to a steady increase in civil asset seizures across the country. These seized assets are paying for a slew of police activities, including PESEDP.

No one other than the police forces involved knows what kinds of equipment PESEDP is paying for

The Ottawa Police Service spent $105,188 on PESEDP in 2015. Ottawa Police's description of PESEDP says that is used to pay for "initiatives focused on the proceeds of crime". This suggests that Ottawa Police may be using PESEDP funds to pursue assets that pay for PESEDP itself.

"There is no prohibition against a grant recipient from using Proceeds of Crime funding to pursue civil assets, provided the grant funds were approved for that use," Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) spokesperson Brent Ross wrote me in an email. However, he continued, all project requests must fall under annual themes, like "creating a safer Ontario through community collaboration."

The PESEDP program is "managed at an operational level by police services across the province," Ross continued. Despite funding the program through Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario, which is a part of MCSCS, Ross wrote that "the Ministry does not direct operational policing decisions."

As for whether a privacy assessment has been done on the program, a media request made to the federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner was referred to the provincial office, then to MCSCS, which would neither confirm nor deny it.

At this point, no one other than the police forces involved knows what kinds of equipment PESEDP is paying for, but some of the surveillance programs operated by police in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada are coming to light.

In December 2015, Toronto Police Service denied having or using Stingrays or cell-site simulators, but a 2016 court case forced the TPS to reveal that they applied for permission to use a Stingray-type device as part of a gang investigation. The Vancouver Police Department has also admitted to using a Stingray device on loan from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada's federal force.

On August 11, 2016, in response to questions from Motherboard, Edmonton Police Service admitted to owning a Stingray device, a comment that the force quickly retracted, saying it had been made in error.

Many experts believe that local police departments borrow such devices from the RCMP, instead of owning them, adding to the mystery of what kinds of surveillance equipment local police are spending so much money on.

"Often, the view is that there is a need to keep these procurement activities secret, but the regular [procurement] transparency mechanisms have considerations built in, so only information that wouldn't undermine the use of the technique is made public," Israel said.

"There's no need to make it more secret than it is."