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The Vancouver Police Department is standing by its decision not to comment on the StingRay device, saying it’s in the ‘public’s interest’ not to disclose any information about it.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Vancouver advocacy groups are demanding to know if the city's police department has been using a surveillance tool known as a StingRay, which can secretly track cellphone use and has been embroiled in controversy in the United States.

But the Vancouver Police Department is standing by its decision not to comment on the device, whose foothold in Canada has largely remained a mystery, saying it's in the "public's interest" not to disclose any information about it.

Douglas King, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, said he has filed an appeal with the provincial privacy commissioner after his Freedom of Information request to Vancouver police failed to turn up any records.

Mr. King filed his request in July and asked for records related to the use of the StingRay or any other cell-site simulator – that is, a device that pretends to be a cellphone tower to connect with nearby phones and can capture voice and text communications.

Vancouver police responded to Mr. King in September. A member of the department's information and privacy unit said that under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, a public body "may refuse to neither confirm nor deny" the existence of certain records. The member added that the act allows a public body to refuse to disclose information if the disclosure could reasonably be expected to "harm the effectiveness of investigative techniques and procedures currently used, or likely to be used, in law enforcement."

Mr. King said citizens have a right to know if police are engaging in mass surveillance.

"I'd like to believe that in Canada and in Vancouver the police wouldn't start rolling out this device without judicial oversight, because it would so clearly be a breach of privacy and Charter rights," he said in an interview Wednesday.

Micheal Vonn, policy director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, wrote in a statement that the logical assumption from the department's response is that it's using the StingRay.

"It is totally unacceptable that the VPD are not willing to be accountable for the use of such devices and the rights violations that are likely to flow from their use," she said.

In response to Mr. King's request, Constable Brian Montague, a Vancouver police spokesman, said: "It is in the public's interest, at times, not to disclose certain information."

Constable Montague said the department's response to Mr. King was in accordance with the information law. He said there is some information that "police agencies are not required to share simply because someone asks for it."

David Murakami Wood, an associate professor of sociology at Queen's University and the Canada Research Chair in Surveillance Studies, said the use of the StingRay in the United States has been well documented. However, both he and Mr. King said little is known about its use in Canada.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said at least 57 agencies – including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency and the Internal Revenue Service – own StingRay devices, but many others have shrouded their purchases.

Earlier this month, U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz introduced legislation to limit the use of cell site simulators by government agencies, as well as state and local law enforcement.

Mr. King said non-disclosure agreements have been used in the sales of such devices and it is inappropriate for police to sign away their duty to be transparent.

Prof. Murakami Wood said the discussion around the StingRay has reminded him of Toronto's debate over the long-range acoustic device ahead of the 2010 G20 Summit.

"What that case brought home to me was exactly this issue. It doesn't matter in some ways what particular technology we're talking about, there seems to be almost no control over what police forces can buy in this country," he said in an interview.

A judge, in that instance, ruled police could use the long range acoustic device's voice function, but not its ear-piercing alert function.