The House of Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee voted Tuesday to begin a special summer study to examine the RCMP's use of spyware, calling on the national police force to be more transparent about the software it uses to conduct surveillance or collect data as part of its investigations.

MPs on the committee have decided to hold a series of meetings starting in August that will focus on determining which "device investigation tools" the RCMP uses, as well as the terms and conditions of using this software.

The committee has called for the RCMP to provide a list of warrants obtained, if any, for the use of this software, and are also seeking information related to the potential wiretapping of MPs, their parliamentary assistants, or any other Parliament of Canada employee.

As part of the study, MPs will be calling for any RCMP officers who have made decisions around the use of surveillance tools; Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino; and the current and former federal privacy commissioners to testify, with the option to invite additional witnesses as desired.

Concerns over the RCMP's use of spyware tools were sparked after documents tabled in the House of Commons in June shed new light on the police force's use of spyware to conduct surveillance and collect data, including through accessing microphones and cameras of phones belonging to suspects of major criminal and national security investigations.

In the documents, the RCMP says the tools used by the Technical Investigation Services Covert Access and Intercept Team are used "primarily" to "covertly and remotely" access text messages and other private communications that couldn’t be collected using wiretaps or "other less intrusive investigative techniques."

"Police sometimes need to use advanced technology-based capabilities to address investigative barriers such as those caused by encryption," read part of the RCMP's submission to the House of Commons. The agency also said that these "on-device investigate [sic] tools" were used 10 times between 2018-2022, and that "in every case, a judicial authorization was obtained" before the tools were deployed.

Bloc Quebecois MP and committee vice-chair Rene Villemure proposed the motion, telling his colleagues during a meeting on Tuesday to discuss taking up the study, that while concerns were raised in the Commons when the disclosure was first made by the national police force, questions remain.

"This document should be clarified. And the questions I would put have to do with this document. There are no accusations, we're looking into things," he said in French.

On the heels of the RCMP confirming it uses these tools, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) expressed concern about police in Canada using spyware against Canadians in targeted investigations.

"What we don’t know is vast. What kinds of investigations are deemed serious enough to use such invasive tools? What tools are being used, and who supplies them? Is it one of the many vendors of spyware known for selling such tools to authoritarian states who use it to target human rights defenders and journalists? What are the internal decision and authorization processes undertaken to authorize this nuclear option for surveillance of Canadians?" asked Brenda McPhail, the CCLA's director of privacy technology and surveillance program in a statement calling for an open discussion on the use of these tools.

The proposal for this study was met with resistance from the Liberal members of the committee, who expressed hesitations over whether the panel of MPs was best placed to take on this work, attempting unsuccessfully to amend the motion to limit its scope.

"I agree with my colleagues, it's important to hold our institutions to account but it's also important at the same time to ensure that there is trust in public institutions that's maintained at the same time," said Liberal MP and committee vice-chair Iqra Khalid during Tuesday's meeting. She suggested the subject matter may be better placed with the top-secret National Security Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP).

"I understand that members would like to have that conversation in a more public forum, which obviously restricts the ability of us to ask those classified questions which we may not get answers to, or to receive those classified documents which we may not receive, because of the sensitive nature of this," said Khalid.

Conservative MP and committee member James Bezan said he disagreed, and that the issue was something the committee should be delving into.

"I think that we want to be very cautious on how we deal with it, including on issues of national security. But, we don't want the RCMP to use the guise of national security or public safety as a way to pull the veil over this information, and hide it from parliamentarians," Bezan said.

The committee is aiming to finalize its study and submit a report to the House of Commons by the start of the fall sitting, on Sept. 19.