By Tim Cushing
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have eyes everywhere. That’s according to documents obtained via public records requests by The Tyee, which published selections from the 3,000 pages it has spent more than a year suing to obtain.
The RCMP has made news previously for doing things like sidestepping warrant requirements for obtaining user data from ISPs and dropping criminal cases rather than discuss its not-so-secret Stingray devices in court. It’s making headlines again, but not the sort it wants. A presentation contained in the document stash provides more details on “Project Wide Awake” — an advanced social media monitoring program first uncovered by The Tyee more than a year ago.
The program is named after a project named in an X-Men comic book. The fact that the RCMP chose this name for its social media monitoring program is more than a little chilling.
Because mutants were beginning to pop up all over the world, some members of the administration decided that America should start enlisting the aid of friendly mutants into the ranks of government agencies (under careful control, of course) for America’s protection. Other members of the administration felt that the mutants should be rounded up and used as a resource, but their methods denied mutants even their most basic civil rights. Still other bureaucrats believe that all mutants should be destroyed. Project: Wideawake has evolved more towards the second way of thinking (mutants as a resource) under the direction of [National Security advisors] Petrie and Gyrich.
Fun stuff. And the fun doesn’t stop there. One slide from the presentation dourly (and accurately, it appears!) notes:
You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.
This sardonic statement was presumably inserted in the Wide Awake presentation to make Mounties less concerned about possible civil liberties violations. If no one has any privacy, nothing the program consumes could possibly violate something that — according to this presentation — no longer exists.
But some expectations of privacy are still being violated, it would appear. Here’s just a partial list of the program’s feature:
The documents reveal the RCMP:
Gained permission to hide sole-source contracts for Project Wide Awake from the public through a “national security exception.”
Discussed “tier three” covert operations involving the use of proxies — intermediary computers located elsewhere — to hide RCMP involvement with spying activities.
Purchased software with an aim to search “Darknet,” which it defined to include “private communications” and those from “political protests.”
Has used a tool to unmask lists of “friends” on Facebook for users that specifically set friends’ information to private on the platform.
The first bullet point is a matter of concern. Going sole-source shuts down the bidding process, which means the public isn’t notified of RCMP acquisitions and projects. It also limits the amount of oversight RCMP will be subjected to by keeping some legislators out of the loop as well. And the best way to keep people out of the loop and the RCMP free from pesky oversight is to claim everything is too sensitive to be handled normally.
In February 2019, as the force sought to secretly obtain Babel X or a tool much like it, an officer argued to Public Services and Procurement Canada that “if released into the public domain” knowledge such software was being used by the RCMP could “jeopardize border integrity” and “criminal and national security investigations,” and “provide avenues for adversaries to attempt to defeat these capabilities,” the newly released documents show.
The commissioner of federal policing went even further than this jumble of words, requesting a “national security exception” for surveillance tech/software purchases by the RCMP.
Babel X is a powerful social media monitoring tool that can instantly translate over 200 languages and provides a plethora of filtering tools (including geofences) to allow law enforcement to hone in on anything (or anyone) they feel might be suspicious. More worryingly, the software can also filter for certain number sequences, allowing users to track uses of social security, drivers license, or credit card numbers. Its produced by the same company that sells cell location data harvested from phone apps to a number of US government agencies and military contractors.
The RCMP’s spokespeople (as well as some of the documents obtained by The Tyee) claim these surveillance techniques are aimed only at “open source” targets. This use of the term implies everything obtained is surface-level, pulled from public accounts and public posts. But the specifics tell a different story. As listed above, part of the RCMP’s toolset allows investigators to access the contents of “Friends” lists that have been set to private — not exactly “open source.” The same goes for its dark web crawlers. People use the dark web specifically to avoid surveillance. This upends that expectation, but the RCMP continues to insist it’s just obtaining what anyone could obtain by surfing the open web.
But the tools also make engaging in covert surveillance easier. Investigators can go undercover, using accounts with zero links to the RCMP, to access conversations and communications that are anything but “open source.” Again, this isn’t a new technique, but software like this allows intrusive surveillance to scale.
The Tyee is still wading through its stash of documents so this first report doesn’t do much more than scratch the surface. But the secrecy surrounding social media surveillance programs is getting subjected to a little sunshine.