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RCMP spyware use probe, Newfoundland forest fires : In The News for Aug. 9

In The News is a roundup of stories from The Canadian Press designed to kickstart your day. Here is what's on the radar of our editors for the morning of Aug. 9 ... What we are watching in Canada ...
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A person uses a cell phone in Ottawa on Monday, July 18, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

In The News is a roundup of stories from The Canadian Press designed to kickstart your day. Here is what's on the radar of our editors for the morning of Aug. 9 ...

What we are watching in Canada ...

The director of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab says spyware is "like a wiretap on steroids," and it requires more oversight and a much higher threshold for use than traditional wiretaps.

Ron Diebert will speak to the House of Commons ethics committee as part of its probe into the RCMP's use of spyware in 32 investigations in the last five years. 

In prepared remarks provided to The Canadian Press, Diebert says what he calls the "mercenary spyware industry" is poorly regulated and associated with widespread abuses. 

He says the industry is a threat to civil society, human rights and democracy and governments should be transparent about procurement of this technology.

Yesterday, senior officers told the committee the RCMP does not use the controversial Pegasus spyware, but refused to disclose details about the technology it is using, citing national security concerns.

The RCMP also says while the technology is new, the invasion of privacy on a digital device is similar to what police have done for years through wiretapping and installing surveillance cameras.

Federal privacy commissioner Philippe Dufresne told the committee the Mounties didn't notify his office before starting to use the technology, and he learned about it through the media. 

He's called on MPs to make changes to privacy legislation that would require government departments and organizations to launch privacy impact assessments whenever new technology is introduced that could have an impact on the "fundamental right to privacy." 

Dufresne's predecessor Daniel Therrien will also appear before the committee today, along with the president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada.

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Also this ...

Helicopters have begun bringing essential supplies to southern Newfoundland towns cut off from the rest of the island by two out-of-control forest fires.

The provincial Department of Transportation said late Monday night that goods had been transported that day to the Coast of Bays area, which includes a large aquaculture farm in the town of St. Alban's.

A news release said two helicopters had also begun bringing goods to the town of Harbour Breton, and that they would continue to do so until the emergency ended.

Two fires with area totalling over 160 square kilometres have shut down the only highway connecting the towns on Newfoundland's southern Connaigre Peninsula with the rest of the province.

The fires have been burning for over two weeks and the remote Bay d'Espoir highway hasn't opened up since last Thursday morning.

Federal Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair said in a tweet Monday night that his department expanded its aid for the wildfire response, and that more resources will be deployed "as conditions allow."

Provincial officials have said a ferry would be dispatched from the town of Lewisporte to help bring supplies to stranded towns and move people out of the area. However, Monday night's news release said that ferry — Sound of Islay — has been delayed by mechanical trouble. 

The vessel is in the provincial capital of St. John's being repaired, the release said.

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What we are watching in the U.S. ...

WASHINGTON _ The FBI searched Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate as part of an investigation into whether he took classified records from the White House to his Florida residence, people familiar with the matter said Monday, a move that represents a dramatic and unprecedented escalation of law enforcement scrutiny of the former president.

Trump, disclosing the search in a lengthy statement, asserted that agents had opened up a safe at his home and described their work as an "unannounced raid'' that he likened to "prosecutorial misconduct.''

The search intensifies the months-long probe into how classified documents ended up in more than a dozen boxes located at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year. It occurs amid a separate grand jury investigation into efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and adds to the potential legal peril for Trump as he lays the groundwork for another run.

Familiar battle lines, forged during a four-year presidency shadowed by FBI and congressional investigations, quickly took shape again Monday night. Trump and his allies sought to cast the search as a weaponization of the criminal justice system and a Democratic-driven effort to keep him from winning another term in 2024 _ even though the Biden White House said it had no prior knowledge of it, and the current FBI director, Christopher Wray, was appointed by Trump five years ago and served as a high-ranking official in a Republican-led Justice Department.

"These are dark times for our Nation, as my beautiful home, Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, is currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents,'' Trump wrote. "Nothing like this has ever happened to a President of the United States before.''

"After working and co-operating with the relevant Government agencies, this unannounced raid on my home was not necessary or appropriate,'' Trump said in his statement.

Trump did not elaborate on the basis for the search, but the Justice Department has been investigating the potential mishandling of classified information after the National Archives and Records Administration said it had retrieved from Mar-a-Lago 15 boxes of records containing classified information earlier this year. The National Archives said Trump should have turned over that material upon leaving office, and it asked the Justice Department to investigate.

There are multiple federal laws governing the handling of classified records and sensitive government documents, including statutes that make it a crime to remove such material and retain it at an unauthorized location. Though a search warrant does not suggest that criminal charges are near or even expected, federal officials looking to obtain one must first demonstrate to a judge that they have probable cause that a crime occurred.

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What we are watching in the rest of the world ...

SEOUL, South Korea _ Heavy rains drenched South Korea's capital region, turning the streets of Seoul's affluent Gangnam district into a river, leaving submerged vehicles and overwhelming public transport systems. At least eight people were killed and six others were missing.

Commuters slowly returned to work Tuesday morning after emergency crews worked overnight to clean up much of the mess. But there were concerns about further damage as torrential rain was forecast for the second day in a row.

While most of the Seoul metropolitan area's subway services were back to normal operations, dozens of roads and riverside parking lots remained closed due to safety concerns.

President Yoon Suk Yeol called for public employers and private companies to adjust their commuting hours and urged aggressive action in restoring damaged facilities and evacuating people in danger areas to prevent further deaths. Moon Hong-sik, spokesperson of Seoul's Defense Ministry, said the military was prepared to deploy troops to help with recovery efforts if requested by cities or regional governments.

The rain began Monday morning and intensified through the evening hours. Nearly 800 buildings in Seoul and nearby cities were damaged while at least 790 people were forced to evacuate from their homes, the Ministry of the Interior and Safety said.

People were seen wading through thigh-high waters Monday night in streets near the Gangnam subway station, one of Seoul's most bustling business and leisure districts, where passenger cars, taxis and buses were stuck in mud-brown waters. Commuters evacuated as water cascaded down the stairs of the ISU subway station like a waterfall. In the nearby city of Seongnam, a rain-weakened hillside collapsed into a university soccer field.

"The heavy rainfall is expected to continue for days -- we need to maintain our sense of alert and respond with all-out effort,'' Yoon said during a visit to the government's emergency headquarters in Seoul on Tuesday. He directed officials' attention to areas vulnerable to landslides or flooding and to reducing the dangers of roads and facilities already damaged.

The country's weather agency maintained a heavy rain warning for the Seoul metropolitan area and nearby regions on Tuesday and said the precipitation may reach five to 10 centimetres an hour in some areas. It said around 10 to 35 centimetres of more rain was expected across the capital region through Thursday.

More than 43 centimetres of rain were measured in Seoul's hardest-hit Dongjak district from Monday to noon Tuesday. The per-hour precipitation in that area exceeded 14 centimetres at one point Monday night, which was the highest hourly downpour measured in Seoul since 1942.

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On this day in 1988 ...

In perhaps the most stunning trade in NHL history, Wayne Gretzky and two other players were traded by the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for three Kings, three draft picks and more than US$10 million. Gretzky, considered by many to be the best hockey player of his generation, wept at the news conference announcing the deal. Gretzky led the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five years and at age 27 was still in his prime as a player. Gretzky retired from hockey in 1999 as a New York Ranger and was immediately named to the Hockey Hall of Fame. His jersey number of 99 was retired by the league forever.

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In entertainment ...

Actor Ezra Miller has been charged with felony burglary in Stamford, Vermont, the latest in a string of incidents involving the embattled star of "The Flash.''

In a report Monday, Vermont State Police said they responded to a burglary complaint in Stamford on May 1 and found several bottles of alcohol were taken from a residence while the homeowners weren't present. Miller was charged after police consulted surveillance footage and interviewed witnesses.

The police report said Miller was located shortly before midnight Sunday and was issued a citation to appear for arraignment in Vermont Superior Court on Sept. 26.

The felony charge adds to Miller's mounting legal woes and reports of erratic behaviour. The 29-year-old actor was arrested twice earlier this year in Hawaii, including for disorderly conduct and harassment at a karaoke bar. The second incident was for second-degree assault.

The parents of 18-year-old Tokata Iron Eyes, a Native American activist, also earlier this year filed a protection order against Miller, accusing the actor of grooming their child and other inappropriate behaviour with her as a minor from the age of 12. Tokata Iron Eyes recently told Insider that those allegations were false.

After appearing in several films for Warner Bros. and D.C. Films as the Flash, Miller stars in the upcoming stand-alone film "The Flash,'' due out in June 2023. Though Warner Bros. last week axed the nearly completed "Batgirl'' film, the studio has suggested it remains committed to releasing "The Flash.''

In an earnings report last week, David Zaslav, chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery referenced "The Flash.'' "We have seen `The Flash,' `Black Adam' and 'Shazam 2. We are very excited about them,'' said Zaslav. ``We think they are terrific, and we think we can make them even better.''

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Did you see this?

Hot weather and dry conditions are the usual suspects in any wildfire season, but a complex interplay of topography and unpredictable winds can create particularly challenging adversaries for firefighters, experts say.

In British Columbia, shifting wind patterns have been a key concern for crews battling a fire in the south Okanagan that has forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes.

Mary-Ann Jenkins, professor emeritus of atmospheric science at York University in Toronto, said fire generally moves in the same direction the wind is blowing. But she said mountains can complicate matters.

The Rockies, for instance, influence a range of factors, including humidity and localized wind directions.

"Because of the Rockies, wind can be channelled through valleys. It changes _ the wind over ridges in the mountains and also sometimes you have very severe downslope winds,'' she said. "And another thing that people don't know is that winds going up a hill tend to accelerate. As they go uphill, they get stronger and stronger before they reach the top.''

Jenkins said the Rockies create a unique phenomenon called Chinook winds, which are extremely drying, can be experienced all year around and can add to firefighting woes.

Such unpredictability has been felt acutely around Keremeos, in British Columbia's south Okanagan. The area's Indigenous name is ``valley of the three winds,'' said Tim Roberts, the elected regional director.

On Monday, BC Wildfire Service information officer Bryan Zandberg said winds around the Keremeos Creek fire were light, at about 15 kilometres per hour, which allowed firefighters to make good progress building containment lines. But he said the winds still had the potential to push flames south toward the villages of Keremeos and Olalla, as happened last week.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 9, 2022.

The Canadian Press