Canadian police have been establishing municipal surveillance centres to support law enforcement, deploying digital technologies that expand surveillance powers with the help of major US corporations, according to government documents seen by The Breach.
Working around-the-clock in special rooms or wings of police stations, these so-called “real-time operations centres” are the cornerstone of a shift to confront what police call the “new challenges” of a digital age.
They are intended to provide “virtual backup” for police officers in any situation, supplying them with information drawn from deep social media monitoring, private and public closed-circuit televisions (CCTV), open-ended data collection, and algorithmic mining.
Over the last 10 years, the surveillance centres have been quietly set up within police forces from Halifax to Vancouver, with no public debate about their functions, corporate relationships, or impacts.
Described by police as “force-multipliers,” they are already being used to monitor demonstrations. And analysts and experts are warning that the reliance on digital surveillance tools, and databases filled with details drawn from practices like carding, risk “supercharging” discriminatory and racist patterns of policing when delivered to officers in real-time.
According to government documents, the centres are modeled after fusion centres created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security post-9/11. The U.S. fusion centres, which began with a focus on combatting terrorism but later expanded to criminal and political activity, have been criticized for indiscriminate surveillance and civil rights violations.
In the wake of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, more than half of Canadians now support the idea of defunding the police. But with no public input into decision-making about policing, municipal police budgets continued to increase across Canada last year, and the Toronto police board passed a $25 million hike this week.
“These centres are expanding police surveillance into people’s everyday lives and using personal information collected in non-criminal contexts for policing operations,” said Thomas Linder, a sociologist and former research fellow at the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University who obtained the documents through access-to-information requests during his doctoral research and shared them with The Breach. “It is disturbing that the option municipal police in Canada are choosing to contend with a digital era is based on surveillance—and one that derives from a militarized national security approach.”
While creating the centres, police forces have sought out advice and technology from major corporations like Motorola, IBM, and Palantir, many with controversial ties to military and spy agencies.
“It seems like we are moving toward a scenario in which police and state security intelligence agencies want total, real-time information awareness,” said Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg.
“The creation and extension of these U.S.-style intelligence-led policing hubs not only reveals the creeping surveillance powers of police in Canada, but also a state-corporate symbiosis. Major private firms, who are lobbying and offering sponsorships and donations, are increasingly influencing the public police, who are drawing ever more on corporate technology and surveillance capacity.”
Although the individual technologies used by the centres are not new and some have undergone privacy impact assessments by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, Linder suggests their centralization and concerted use for policing operations can fundamentally change their impact. This, he says, has never been assessed.
“Time-tested policing techniques with new technology”
Under the standard dispatch system, police officers are provided with basic details about a person or an unfolding event.
But the new “virtual backup” involves police analysts drawing on a combination of social media surveillance, private CCTV in malls, campuses, and businesses, and the algorithmic mining of existing databases.
Even before they arrive on scene, police are provided with far more details, including photos of the suspect or the scene and kernels dug up from Facebook and Twitter and social network analysis—receiving the information on computers in their patrol cars, or by radio or smartphone.
“We might give officers something in half an hour that they would have figured out on their own in five days,” a criminal analyst at Vancouver’s centre acknowledges in a rare public description of their activities.
A planning document from the Calgary police, which established the oldest-running centre in 2010, indicates their goals include taking these capacities even further, like geo-locating a target’s cellphone in real-time.
Calgary police did not reply to questions from The Breach about whether they are now engaging in this practice, which is done in the United States.
According to material from US multinational Motorola Solutions promoting its “CommandCentral Aware” technology, which is used by Niagara police’s centre, the company hopes to eventually offer gunfire detection anywhere in a city.
As part of his doctoral research, Linder was able to visit several facilities and conduct anonymous interviews with officers, where he learned how analysts have received specialised training from the cybercrimes division to combine apps, browser searches and hidden commands to produce more powerful search results that they can then channel to frontline officers.
This social media surveillance has been used to scan for signs of drug use and self-harm, social disturbances, and to monitor protestors during demonstrations.
Officers at the centre run by the York Regional Police, which polices a million residents north of Toronto, told Linder that they had at one point monitored the musician Drake’s entourage.
The York Regional police declined to provide comment when contacted by The Breach.
Neither the RCMP nor any other police service has submitted a Privacy Impact Assessment form about social media surveillance, despite repeated promises over the last few years.
The surveillance centres have also given a new lease on life to CCTVs—with increased capacity for speedy integration of video providing an incentive to bring more videos into police use.
As a result, police forces have begun inking deals with malls, school campuses, gas stations, and corner stores, as well as with municipal bodies, to gain live control over their CCTV networks.
The Niagara Regional Police Service has agreements with parks and business associations, Edmonton is attempting to sign deals with malls and campuses. And Calgary has partnered with with the city’s public transit, a polytechnic university, and some local businesses—and has also integrated cameras from their helicopters into their centres’ monitoring.
The aim is to “modify time-tested policing techniques with new technology in creating a plan for a 24/7, tactical, intelligence-driven hub to support and coordinate front-line and investigative resources,” according to documents from the Calgary police.
According to Linder’s interviews, a number of the surveillance centers are also employing advanced data mining systems that enable analysis of their central police databases, which hold data collected on all individuals police have ever had any contact with—not just those who have been charged or even arrested.
This includes data collected from discontinued practices such as stop and frisk or carding, which disproportionately targeted Black, Indigenous and racialized communities. Several police forces, including Toronto’s, have refused to delete these databases.
By inputting a name, phone number or other identifier, the new system can in real-time automatically build a graph of associated connections and social networks.
“These centres leverage this massively expanded surveillance to bring detailed information about any person straight to a frontline officer in real time,” said Linder. “This radically changes the kind of info available to a responding officer, pushing all the biases inherent to these technologies directly to an officer already in a potentially tense situation.”
The centres have also used their technology to monitor their own police forces, displaying the current location of all police officers on digital maps as well as where police calls are coming from.
“We have 2757 square kilometres as part of Ottawa,” an officer based out of the Ottawa centre told Linder anonymously in 2018. “How do we provide a single view on everything that is happening? We have a very hard time identifying where everyone is at any one time.”
In an email, the Ottawa police “politely declined” to answer any questions from The Breach.
Never “Enough Data”
According to police documents, private corporations have not only supplied key technologies but have also been involved in the design of the centres.
In 2014, the Ottawa Police Service developed a roadmap in collaboration with IBM that painted a picture of a force struggling with the digital environment.
“Current technology does not support and facilitate accurate data,” the roadmap explained. “Information is not timely, readily visible or shared,” and “front-line officers are not equipped with real-time information to enable proactive policing.”
The document suggested that “the paradigm of collecting ‘enough’ data / information must cease.” Instead, the service should move towards using IBM’s big data systems for “extracting game-changing insight from new and existing sources of data through analytics.”
IBM, a vast IT corporation with deep ties to the US defense industry, was also involved in the development of the Edmonton Police Service’s centre.
Motorola Solutions, which used to focus on communications technologies but recently has branched out into the provision of controversial surveillance systems to police, developed the business model for the Niagara police’s centre, with its commercial platform at its heart.
Other technologies provided by corporations have heavily influenced the operation of the centres.
Calgary police use technology from Palantir, a big data corporation that has come under fire for providing tools used by the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
The Palantir’s Gotham suite of data analysis tools can vastly increase an agency’s ability to penetrate people’s privacy by offering a blackbox interface that speeds up analysis.
A Calgary Police Services spokesperson told The Breach by email that Palantir is a “database analytical tool” that was purchased through a request for proposal.
“Third party software is purchased through a formal [Request for Proposal] process that outlines our legislated and corporate requirements, including protection of data and privacy.”
According to a report published by cyber watchdog group Citizen Lab in 2020, while the Calgary police do not use Palantir’s tech for the algorithmic and predictive policing capabilities it offers, they do store information about physical characteristics, relationships, interactions with police, and religious affiliation, in addition to mapping out the location of purported crimes.
“More over-policing, more racialized policing”
The collection of information in these databases and their algorithmic analysis have long been shown to have a high potential for bias and discrimination.
“The seemingly ‘neutral’ application of algorithmic policing tools masks the reality that they can disproportionately impact marginalized communities,” the co-authors of the Citizen Lab report wrote. “The use of police-generated data sets that are affected by systemic bias may create negative feedback loops where individuals from historically disadvantaged communities are labelled by an algorithm as a heightened risk because of historic bias towards those communities.”
Linder suggests that the new speed and comprehensiveness of police analysis is driving a push for greater data collection, as even the most incidental data can now easily be collected, connected, and brought to bear in a subsequent search.
During his interviews, Linder says police forces were in the process of developing new data tools, including a semi-automatised app on their service smart phones that could more easily collect data from encounters.
“Extreme caution must be exercised before law enforcement authorities are permitted, if at all, to use algorithmic policing technologies that process mass police data sets,” the Citizen Lab authors write. “Otherwise, these technologies may exacerbate the already unconstitutional and devastating impact of systemic targeting of marginalized communities.”
Toward “regional fusion centres”
According to planning documents from the Ottawa police, the primary model for the Canadian centres comes from controversial fusion centres in the United States—with planning documents describing municipal police laying the groundwork for “regional fusion centres.”
Since their inception in the early 2000s, fusion centres have spied on Muslims, Black people, and other Americans in collaboration with federal spy agencies, the military, and private companies in “virtually complete secrecy,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The ACLU says that fusion centres’ mandates “encourage wholesale data collection and data manipulation processes that threaten privacy.”
Originally intended to combat terrorism, U.S. fusion centres have morphed into policing intelligence hubs, something acknowledged by the Vancouver police in a business case document from 2014.
“[T]heir operation has evolved from being mainly anti-terrorism intelligence hubs to being more operationally focussed and providing frontline officers with timely and comprehensive information to assist furthering police investigations,” the document reads.
“There is much evidence from the USA showing how these intelligence-led policing hubs end up leading to more over-policing, more racialized policing, in ways that can increase inequality,” said Walby.
“The evidence shows that the intelligence categories these entities use are often based on stereotypes, so even though they say they are doing ‘smart’ policing or ‘intelligent’ policing they are in fact using science and technology to cover over the same old biases in policing. It is already clear from the US example that these hubs only serve to benefit the corporations selling the gear and the police who get expanded budgets and power. You have to ask, how does this serve the public interest?”
The U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has criticized fusion centres for overstating their effectiveness, spying on individuals, misspending federal funds, and producing reports that infringed on civil rights.
And despite the emergence of a powerful Black Lives Matter movement that has created an unprecedented shift in attitudes toward policing, politicians and policymakers still too readily say yes to changes advocated by police, Walby says.
“I think it is time in Canada for policing practices to be subjected to much more serious scrutiny. Their powers need to be curtailed. Their budgets need to be curtailed. Right now the public has no decision-making say in what kind of policing they want, or if they want it at all in their communities. The police oversight and accountability bodies that exist are a rubber stamp for police budgets, which includes the changing relationship of police to information and communication technologies.”