As a columnist and reporter for Montreal's French-language newspaper La Presse, Patrick Lagacé has a reputation for casting a critical eye on the city's police department.
Last week, he learned the police have been watching him, too.
In an alarming meeting with investigators recently, police admitted to Mr. Lagacé that they had obtained warrants earlier this year to collect his cellphone's metadata – information that can reveal the identity of his contacts – and to track his location via his phone's GPS technology. Police revealed the surveillance after La Presse lawyers pressed the department about Lagacé's name showing up in a police corruption case.
Initially, Lagacé said he was "flabbergasted." But as the full extent of the police operations targeting numerous journalists became clear, his shock turned to a sense of dismay shared across the country.
"At first I was mad as a journalist. I thought journalists being spied on by the state was an extreme measure and couldn’t be so easily done in a mature and strong democracy like Canada," says Lagacé. "As the dust settled, I went from being mad, then sad, and then almost physically sick as a citizen."
Over the past several days, the Quebec provincial police force have admitted its officers had obtained similar court orders giving them the ability to surveil six of Quebec's most prominent investigative reporters by accessing their cellphone data. By Friday, news reports revealed that police have spied on at least at least 10 journalists in Quebec. And over the weekend, La Presse revealed that the police used the metadata from Lagacé's phone to obtain a warrant to listen in on his conversations, as well.
The news has set off a fierce debate in Canada about law enforcement surveillance powers in the Digital Age. Privacy advocates and civil liberties groups say that police have abused their powers, warning that all Canadians are now subject to similar surveillance activities whether they are suspected of a crime or not. Police, however, say they did not break any laws and that the journalists were not the targets of their investigations.
Quebec's Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux has announced an inquiry to look into press freedom and police surveillance and said the government would examine ways to ensure journalists are protected.
Canadian police departments are pushing harder to get access to cellphone data. A recently passed law meant to prevent cyberbullying actually lowered the threshold to obtain those kinds of court orders experts say. Under the law, police can access transmission and tracking data if they can convince a judge that they simply suspect a crime has or will be committed. The standard for other types of warrants requires that police show their search will produce evidence of an offense.
Records show Canadian police obtain hundreds of thousands of warrants for cellphone data every year.
"The numbers are quite shocking," says Theresa Scassa, an information law expert at the University of Ottawa. In 2015, a single Canadian cellphone provider, Rogers Communications, processed 75,000 court orders or warrants for its customers' cellphone records, or roughly 290 every business day.
"If I'm a police officer and I can get access to new technology that would make my life easier, of course I would want to use it," said privacy lawyer David Fraser, who pointed out that information collected on cellphones can leave behind a data trail of personal information. "They will go as far as they can because that’s their job."
Experts say that most of the warrants obtained are likely for records belonging to specific individuals who is a criminal suspects. But privacy advocates such as Ms. Scassa worry police are increasingly demanding cellphone tower dumps, as well, which gives them access to data belonging to hundreds or thousands of people, most of whom are completely innocent.
For instance, in late October the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) planned to send text messages to 7,500 people whose phones were connected to a specific cell tower on the afternoon of Dec. 17, 2015. The messages directed recipients to an online tips page where they could identify themselves and answer questions about what they may have seen on the day the victim disappeared.
OPP Det. Sgt. Dave Truax rejected the notion that police put anyone's privacy at risk. He said police do not know who the numbers belong to and that they would only be used in relation to the murder investigation. He adds that in his view, the public benefit in solving a murder outweighs a potential risk to personal privacy.
"It’s a murder. Someone died here. If it was your brother, your cousin, your loved one, would you not want the police to do everything we can to catch the killer?" he asked.
The Ontario police says it plans to keep the data until the investigation is over. And although the OPP say they won’t use the information for other investigations, there is nothing in the law to prevent it.
Without more controls on how law enforcement collects and uses cellphone data, police could easily consult public databases or do internet searches to find out who the numbers belong to, said Christopher Parsons, a specialist in digital privacy and telecommunications at the independent research group Citizen Lab.
Mr. Parsons says police could even identify patterns in the daily activities of a person or a group of people who could retroactively become suspects in other crimes or the targets of a new surveillance campaigns.
In the case of the Quebec journalists, Parsons says, it shows how far police are willing to go to surveil people who aren't suspected of any criminal wrongdoing.
"Journalists and academics are good canaries in the coal mine. They are supposed to be exceptionally well protected," said Parsons. "My concern is what this may mean for people who do not traditionally enjoy these protections."
None of the journalists under police surveillance were ever criminal suspects. Instead, it appears police used the journalists' data to help with internal investigations into sources of leaks to media outlets.
Lagacé, the La Presse columnist, says he believes Montreal police obtained warrants for his cellphone data in an attempt to intimidate one of their officers who they believed was acting as a source for his articles.
Several of the other journalists targeted by police had been working on a story that eventually uncovered one of the biggest construction and organized crime scandals in Canadian history.
Marie-Maude Denis, a host of the Radio Canada investigative program Enquete, said she and her colleagues took extraordinary measures to protect their sources over the course of five years of investigations. Their cellphone data would have revealed the identities of many of those sources, potentially putting their lives at risk.
"I think this is broader and it’s possibly just the tip of the iceberg," she said. "I took freedom of the press for granted and I see now that you can’t take it for granted."