Potential cyber-spies are listening to private and possibly classified conversations around Ottawa’s Parliament Hill in an area that includes the Prime Minister’s Office and the United States Embassy.
Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced Tuesday that he has an ordered an investigation by the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) into confirmed reports that International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers are routinely monitoring cellphone calls around the nexus of Canada’s federal government in the nation’s capitol.
Though intelligence authorities haven’t determined the origin of the espionage, speculation suggests it could be either be domestic organized crime or a foreign government.
“Obviously we are very anxious to determine who lies at the source of this activity and that’s why both CSIS and the RCMP are investigating,” Goodale said.
“We want to make sure that we get to the bottom of this and find out the facts and the RCMP and CSIS are in the best position to do that.”
Goodale can confirm that the spying was not being done by a Canadian agency using International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers. Unlike the United States, where intelligence gathering is routinely claimed to be a shared responsibility of 17 intelligence organizations, in Canada only three government departments have a mandate to collect intelligence: the RCMP, CSIS and the Department of National Defence.
CBC News has just concluded a two-month investigative report into the use of IMSI catchers around Parliament Hill. Reporters used a “CrytoPhone” created by a German manufacturer that appear to be a regular cellphone but can detect and alert the user when IMSI catchers are nearby.
The IMSI devices imitate a cellphone tower that can respond to and read the cellular ID associated with phones in the vicinity. But the tracking can exceed merely reading the ID and become a form of cellular wiretapping, according to cybersecurity expert Daniel Tobok, who says they “can actually intercept your voice communication, your data communication. So your voice calls can be recorded, your text messages could be read,” Tobok told CBC News.
“That is one of the problems. Somebody could actually intercept your communication and have access into your personal information on your phone.”
Tobok said some devices can even intercept communication that is encrypted for reasons of privacy or secrecy.
“When somebody casts a very large net and intercepts everything that comes through, then they could have time to potentially decrypt the WhatsApps of the world and any other type of encrypted communication. All depends on who you are dealing with,” he said.
There are multiple IMSI catchers on the market and it is not known which ones are being used to capture Parliament Hill intelligence. CBC reporters used a German-manufactured model.
Media in the United States, Norway and Australia have also conductive investigative journalism reports on the presence of IMSI catchers in politically-sensitive zones.
CBC News conducted tests in December 2016 and this past January that revealed the presence During tests in December and January, the CryptoPhone set off alerts at locations around Parliament Hill that included a local shopping mall, an outdoor market and the national press gallery. The IMSI catchers can read information in about a 500 yard radius — an area that could also affect the Prime Minister’s Office, National Defence Headquarters and the U.S. and Israeli embassies.
CBC News also used an Overwatch Sensor that confirmed the presence of an IMSI catcher close to Parliament Hill.