Phone surveillance could interfere with 911 calls, emergency operators warn

Supreme Court, CRA express concern about cellphone trackers after CBC story: documents

Emergency operators are raising concern that surveillance devices used by law enforcement could prevent some mobile phone users from being able to contact 911.

"The association is concerned about any situation that could make it difficult or impossible for the population to access the 911 service," said Carole Raîche, president of l'Association des centres d'urgence du Québec, the group that oversees operators in the province.

A recent CBC News investigation revealed the presence of IMSI interceptors on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and at Montreal's Trudeau airport.

The devices, sometimes known by the brand name of one model, StingRay, mimic a cellphone tower to interact with nearby phones and read the unique ID associated with a phone — the International Mobile Subscriber Identity.

They have been used by Canadian police and security authorities, foreign intelligence and even organized crime.

At the same time, they can also prevent users from making calls, including emergency calls to 911.

In such cases, subscribers would not know why they were unable to reach the first responders.

RCMP acknowledge phone spying

As a result of the CBC report, the RCMP and other police forces acknowledged, for the first time, that they use IMSI sensors as part of their investigations.

The Mounties also confirmed that some 911 calls may not work when deploying the devices. However, the RCMP said it takes all necessary steps to reduce the possible impact on emergency calls.

For example, the federal police only activate the IMSI interceptors for three minutes at a time, followed by a two-minute pause.

Raîche said her association plans to raise concern about the issue with Quebec Public Safety Martin Coiteux and the CRTC, which regulates 911 operators, to highlight its concerns.

Raîche pointed out that authorities had not made her association aware of the possible impact of the technology on 911 calls.

Quebec examines impact

In an email, Coiteux's office said it was examining the potential impact of such equipment on cellphone calls.

A spokesperson add that the provincial police force "does not use such devices."

The CRTC, meanwhile, noted that it regulates only 911 providers and not the users of such devices, such as the RCMP.

The regulatory agency added that it had not been aware of any incidents where 911 calls were blocked because of the devices.

One of Canada's largest cellular providers, Rogers Communications, has already alerted the federal government about the risks associated with the use of IMSI interceptors for emergency services.

As part of the recent federal consultation on national security, the company submitted a report to the federal government in December 2016.

Rogers noted that the use of IMSI interceptors is not detectable by wireless networks and that customers might not be able to make calls when activated.

This is particularly important with regard to possible interference with access to emergency services and 911 service.

The office of Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the use of such devices is limited and supervised by the courts.

A spokesperson said the government will release a report on the results of the consultations on national security "in the near future"