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Cellphone tracking devices known as IMSI catchers were deployed near Parliament Hill is framed by lights on Major's Hill Park in Ottawa on Monday, April 3, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The RCMP and Canada's spy agency are investigating reports of secret cellphone surveillance in downtown Ottawa near Parliament Hill.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters on Tuesday that he met earlier in the day with RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson and Michel Coulombe, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, to discuss the issue and confirmed that neither agency is responsible for the electronic eavesdropping.

The meeting included discussion of a report on Monday by CBC News that tracking devices known as IMSI catchers are being used around Parliament Hill, although it was not clear who was using them.

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Mr. Goodale said on Tuesday that while he does not comment on operational security matters, the reported surveillance was not carried out by the RCMP or CSIS.

"Those activities are now under active investigation by both the RCMP and CSIS," he said. "Like most police and security services worldwide, the Canadian agencies do have this technology, but that technology is used only in compliance with the law and lawful authorities."

Foreign embassies are frequently suspected of being used as listening posts around the world. In recent years, observers have speculated that IMSI catchers have become part of the kit foreign intelligence services routinely use.

Within Canada, private communications are constitutionally protected, and it is a crime to eavesdrop on someone's conversations without a judicial warrant. Yet IMSI catchers – also known by the brand name Stingray – appear to exist in a legal grey zone.

This is because most of them appear to be capable of capturing only the unique codes in cellphones that can lead to the identities of individual users in a given area. Whether intercepting such data would constitute a criminal offence is debatable, given that these devices often do not touch the substance of private conversations. However, reports have suggested the devices can intercept text messages and phone calls in some situations.

Federal agents in Canada are known to have been using such devices domestically for more than a decade. But they have not been eager to settle questions about the legalities in open forums. Police have expressed fears that they would lose a vital capability by highlighting its existence.

The recent CBC report fits a pattern of media investigations in various world capitals. The CBC reporters said they detected the use of IMSI catchers with a device called a CryptoPhone, which was designed to spot such activity. The technology is manufactured by the German company GSMK, and marketed by a Nevada firm, ESD America.

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A CryptoPhone was also used for a 2014 Washington Post investigation. Over a two-day period in the U.S. capital, reporters found that up to 18 IMSI catchers were turned on at or near the White House, the Capitol, foreign embassies and Dulles International Airport.

In 2015 in Britain, SkyNews also acquired a CryptoPhone and found more than 20 instances of alleged IMSI catcher use in and around London over several weeks.

Just who was spying on whom was never made clear.

A recent police probe into organized-crime groups in Quebec revealed that the RCMP has been using its own IMSI catchers since 2005. In an investigation known as Project Clemenza, the Mounties went to judges to clear the use of IMSI catchers to identify specific devices and user names so police could later crack their encoded communications.

Crown prosecutors watered down murder charges against six key suspects last year after their lawyers raised questions in open court about the legalities of IMSI catcher use.

It is not clear what would constitute a criminal use of an IMSI catcher in Canada. The Globe and Mail reported last year that prison officials at Warkworth Institute acquired one to pinpoint contraband cellphones. No warrants are known to have been obtained, and prison guards alleged their phones became collateral damage in the probe.

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Mr. Goodale declined to speculate on Tuesday about who might be using the tracking devices in Ottawa.

"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," he said.

Conservative public safety critic Tony Clement said he was pleased to hear the government is investigating and that the minister has stated that the RCMP and CSIS were not involved.

"I look forward to Mr. Goodale sharing the results of that investigation with other parliamentarians," he said.

Born out of the Cold War, Five Eyes is a multinational spy network comprised of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the United States. The member states of Five Eyes gather intelligence about foreign countries, sharing it freely between themselves. The Globe and Mail

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