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The RCMP Is Using the Media to ‘Create Moral Panic’ About Encryption

Experts say stage-managed information sharing with journalists is a PR play.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has turned to two of the country's top media outlets to make their case for new surveillance capabilities in what critics say is a PR play orchestrated to sow public worry about privacy-boosting technology.

Police in Canada have long pushed for broadened surveillance powers that would force people to unlock their phones, for example, or force telecommunication companies to provide real-time access to subscriber information. No such laws currently exist, but to show why the police believe they need them to do their jobs, the country's federal force worked with two of Canada's most respected media entities.

The RCMP gave the CBC's David Seglins and the Toronto Star's Robert Cribb security clearance to review the details of 10 "high priority" investigations—some of which are ongoing—that show how the police is running into investigative roadblocks on everything from locked devices to encrypted chat rooms to long waits for information. The Toronto Star's headline describes the documents as "top-secret RCMP files."

The information sharing was stage-managed, however. Instead of handing over case files directly to the journalists, the federal police provided vetted "detailed written case summaries," according to a statement from Seglins and Cribb. These summaries "[formed] the basis of our reporting," they said. The journalists were given additional information on background, and allowed to ask questions, according to the statement, but "many details were withheld."

"To give information in this way to two respected media organizations does two things: it uses the media to create moral panic, and it makes the media look like police agents"

The stories extensively quote RCMP officials, but also include comment from privacy experts who are critical of the police agency's approach.

"On the one hand, the [RCMP] do have a serious problem," said Jeffrey Dvorkin, former vice president of news for NPR and director of the University of Toronto Scarborough's journalism program. "But to give information in this way to two respected media organizations does two things: it uses the media to create moral panic, and it makes the media look like police agents."

"It would have been better if the RCMP launched its own PR campaign to get the public to understand that they're in a difficult position," Dvorkin continued.

When asked if the Star and the CBC had any say in which cases they reviewed, Seglins and Cribb wrote that they did request details on a "handful of individual cases of interest," they said, and police complied "in some cases," denying access to one file because of sensitivities surrounding an ongoing investigation.

In the CBC and Star reports, RCMP officials repeatedly refer to the problem of "going dark," a term that law enforcement frequently uses to describe their supposed difficulties in solving cases due to the use of encryption technology. A green paper prepared by the government in the lead-up to an ongoing national security consultation also notes that police have identified encryption as a roadblock. Critics say the consultation and green paper risk broadening Canadian police's already-expanded powers.

Read More: How Bureaucrats and Spies Turned Canada Into a Surveillance State

A joint investigation by Motherboard and VICE News earlier this year revealed that the RCMP possessed a key that allowed them to decrypt communications on all consumer BlackBerry devices. The RCMP also has the ability to "crack" the encryption on certain phones, reports have shown.

Critics of police attempts to undercut encryption technology via the law note that ordinary people—journalists, protesters, and professors—also use encryption, and banning it would hurt them too, not just criminals.

"This is obviously part of a concerted PR attempt on the part of the RCMP in particular, which has been ongoing for some time," said privacy lawyer David Fraser. "The wording in these articles is mostly the police's version of things, and we need a reality check."

"If ordinary Canadians don't have access to technology to protect their privacy," Fraser said, "bad guys would be able to very easily, online, get the same tools that they're using today to encrypt their communications. Overall, we would be no safer, and in fact less safe."

The CBC and the Toronto Star's story is part one of a five-part series on the debate over privacy and police powers in Canada, with a second installment to come on Wednesday.

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