Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Government signed 4 contracts to conduct cell phone espionage

During the past two years, the federal Attorney General’s Office (FGR) purchased software that allowed it to conduct cell phone and internet espionage on a massive scale, according to a report by the newspaper El País.

The FGR signed at least four contracts worth US $5.6 million with the company Neolinx de México in 2019 and 2020, according to government documents. It purchased programs that allowed it to track cell phones and collect data on internet users, the newspaper said in a report published Wednesday.

Neolinx has previously acted as a representative for the Italian IT company Hacking Team, which allegedly sold cyber espionage programs to former president Enrique Peña Nieto’s 2012–2018 government, but it has represented the Israeli firm Rayzone Group in more recent times.

According to El País, the programs the FGR purchased from Neolinx during the current government are not illegal and, according to the authorities, are used to combat organized crime.

However, they can be used arbitrarily in a way that violates people’s right to privacy and the presumption of innocence, as R3D, a digital rights defense network, has warned in several reports.

While the invasion of people’s privacy by the government is not prohibited in an absolute sense, said R3D director Luis Fernando García Muñoz, there are strict limits on the type of surveillance activities it can carry out. The government’s capacity to conduct cell phone and internet espionage on a massive scale is highly problematic, he said.

“Massive surveillance is not compatible with the principles of necessity and proportionality,” García said.

The FGR signed its first contract with Neolinx on May 30, 2019, via its organized crime unit SEIDO. According to a government report that contains details of the US $2.4 million deal, the FGR gained access to a program that allowed it to track cell phones in real time on 135,000 separate occasions.

The PGR, the FGR’s predecessor, also purchased access to the same Rayzone Group geolocation system, which is called Geomatrix.

A 2019 report by R3D and the news website Reporte Indigo said that the PGR had used the system indiscriminately.

Rayzone Group markets the product as “a unique solution that enables intelligence and law enforcement agencies the ability to locate … [mobile phone] subscribers covertly virtually anywhere in the world, all in real time, using a very friendly GUI [graphical user interface] and with flexible capabilities of GIS [geographic information system] mapping.”

On its website, the company also says the Geomatrix system “stealthily ascertains status, location and movement of targets of interest from anywhere in a city and/or area to the entire country and beyond borders, pinpointing them with high accuracy in real time.”

El País said the FGR spent US $1.1 million on Rayzone’s ECHO system in 2019 and $1.7 million in 2020. The newspaper didn’t reveal details of FGR’s fourth contract with Neolinx.

According to Rayzone, ECHO is a a global virtual signals intelligence system that “utilizes a fully stealth method of collection on any internet user.”

“ECHO is agnostic to the device type, operating system or version, and does not require preinstallation of any physical equipment. ECHO provides a web-based platform that allows users immediate access to perform simple queries as well as complex investigations. ECHO provides the benefits of both a target-centric approach (collecting information on a particular point of interest) and data-centric approach (mass collection of all internet users in a country).”

El País said that it didn’t receive a response when it asked the FGR how it was using the Rayzone products.

The revelation of the purchases came the same day that President López Obrador, defending a plan to establish a national registry of mobile phone users, said the government had no interest in spying on anyone. He has said previously that his government hasn’t used any espionage programs.

One of the many scandals the Peña Nieto administration faced was the revelation that it had purchased cyber espionage programs, including the spyware suite Pegasus for US $32 million.

It used that software to attempt to spy on journalists, human rights defenders and other government critics.

Source: El País (sp) 

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