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CityNews investigation: Prison cellphone surveillance may have hit nearby homes

Last Updated Sep 23, 2015 at 8:23 pm EST

Correctional Services Canada is recording your phone calls and reading your texts – and you’re not even behind bars.

A CityNews investigation reveals Correctional Services Canada (CSC) introduced super surveillance technology in at least one federal institution this winter; capturing calls and texts made from inside the jail, the visitor parking lot and, potentially, passing drivers and residents who live in close proximity to the institution.

“We understand and believe there’s really been a breach of privacy. These were personal cell phones and personal calls. We’re looking at it from a legal aspect,” the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers’ Jason Godin told CityNews.

A confidential Sept. 17, 2015 email sent by Warkworth Institution’s warden Scott Thompson to staff at the Campbellford-area prison, and obtained by CityNews, details how the technology captures these conversations.

Warkworth Institution email

“After the death and overdoses in January, I went to NHQ (national headquarters) and insisted we needed assistance in detecting inmate used cell phones within our institution,” Thompson wrote. “Unfortunately, I knew that by trying to intercept what the inmates were doing, I would also be provided with information about cellular devices being used in non-inmate areas.”

“And who knows how far it goes?,” Frank,* a correctional officer at Warkworth, asked. “The warden said they had to expand the reach of the technology to catch the whole grounds and visitor parking lot. Who knows where it ends?” (* not his real name)

“Even on my lunch break, they could be listening in.”

– Frank

The warden’s email explains “we knew if the phone was in our parking lot or in a certain unit or building. It provides make, phone numbers and sim card number.” And adds, “It recoded all voice and text conversations.”

The email doesn’t identify the type of technology installed. However, International Subscriber Mobile Identity (ISMI catcher), or “stingrays” are increasingly being used by law enforcement officers in the U.S. to capture the exact same information.

“CSC cannot disclose which technology and design features are in use at any specific facility,” CSC spokesperson Esther Mailhot wrote in a statement.

“We had no idea this was going on. How is this even legal?,” Frank questioned.

According to Ari Goldkind, a Toronto-based defence lawyer, it may not be.

“This seems to be a very clear breach of the Criminal Code. In fact, what it looks like they are doing is breaking the law, in some attempt to enforce the law.”

Although law enforcement officers and bodies – including correctional facilities  – have increased surveillance powers, they don’t have blanket powers to intercept all calls.

“The interception of cell phone conversations is extremely sensitive, and you can do it only under very restricted conditions. For inmates? Yes. Totally. That’s for law enforcement purposes, but to go beyond that you need transparency and very clear notice,” Ontario’s former Privacy Commissioner Dr. Ann Cavoukian explained.

“What about the employees who work at the facility, and even worse, what about the people in the parking lot, coming to consult with their clients, or just innocent bystanders trying to visit somebody inside, or even just people who are around the grounds of the institution?” she questioned.

Brian Findlay is one of those people. His family farm has a clear view of Warkworth, and the visitor’s parking lot. He’s concerned his calls have been intercepted by the government.

“That’s private information, that’s for sure and we have nothing to hide mind you, but it is our business and it should be kept that way. Other people shouldn’t be into our private conversation, that’s for sure,” Findlay said.

CityNews asked CSC repeatedly and specifically what steps were taken to ensure that conversations by nearby residents weren’t intercepted. It did not address that issue.

Findlay is upset he wasn’t notified of the potential for interception. “Anything like that, for sure, the public should be made aware of.”

Cavoukian agrees.

“You can’t just assume because you’re in a correctional facility that anyone who comes anywhere near the facility loses any expectation of privacy.”

“Is there clear notice in the parking lot saying all of your communications on your cell phones, your calls, your texts, will be intercepted? That’s critical,” she added.

There isn’t. On initial entry to the grounds there is a sign saying visitors may be subject to search and seizure of their property, but nothing about interception of calls. CityNews checked the visitor’s parking lot as well  – there are no signs that indicated calls could be monitored.

“If you live near Warkworth and you’re a farmer, if you live near a prison, if you’re somebody who is just driving by, am I now supposed to trust that there’s this gizmo or gadget that’s sort of like a dog’s invisible fence, that just stops (the interception) at the border of the prison?,” questioned Goldkind. “I don’t have that type of trust in government these days, I don’t think a lot of people do.”

CSC refused to disclose if this technology is in use at other institutions or if it has stopped its use at Warkworth.