Cyber Steward Network and Local Activists Investigate Surveillance in Mexico

by Renata Avila

While the Mexican government has long been suspected of purchasing surveillance equipment, the frequency of these purchases and the level of public funds allocated to them are rapidly increasing. Last February,  New York Times published an investigative report on a USD 355 million outlay by the Mexican Ministry of Defense for sophisticated surveillance equipment. Six months earlier, Carmen Artistegui, a renowned investigative journalist in Mexico, published a report documenting five contracts from the Secretariat of National Defense for the purchase of surveillance technologies. All five contracts were confidential and granted to a single company headquartered in the state of Jalisco called Security Tracking Devices, Inc.

On March 13, 2013, Citizen Lab published “You Only Click Twice: FinFisher’s Global Proliferation,” in which researchers conducted a global Internet scan for the command and control servers of FinFisher surveillance software. The Citizen Lab found FinFisher servers hosted on two Mexican Internet service providers: Iusacell, a small service provider; and UniNet, one of the largest ISPs in Mexico.

As part of my work investigating surveillance in the Northern Triangle, I recognized that the findings revealed potential legal violations. I quickly translated the findings and disseminated them to human rights groups and technology collectives in Mexico.

The findings were widely shared via social networks and later translated by the online activist group YoSoyRed. Shortly thereafter, Mexican magazine Proceso published an investigative report on the harassment of human rights defenders online. The report  asked Iusacell  and UniNet to explain the presence of FinFisher on their servers. Neither of the ISPs responded to any of the magazine’s questions.

I connected with human rights activists in Mexico City  to raise awareness about civil society efforts in other countries that have resulted in legal action against the use of surveillance technology by repressive regimes, including cases against Amesys in France and Finfisher in Pakistan. A coalition of human rights lawyers and international experts, including Citizen Lab, ISOC Mexico, Privacy International, and other organizations, discussed the possibility of taking legal action to reveal the identity of those parties responsible for the purchase and deployment of FinFisher software in Mexico. At the time, however, we did not have enough information to present a strong case.

On May 1, 2013 Citizen Lab published “For Their Eyes Only: The Commercialization of Digital Spying,” which once again implicated Mexican ISPs in deploying FinFisher surveillance software. Two Mexico City-based human rights non-governmental organizations, Propuesta Cívica and ContingenteMx, requested a verification procedure regarding FinFisher’s presence in Mexico with the Instituto Federal de Acceso a la Información y Protección de Datos Inicio (Federal Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection or IFAI), Mexico’s privacy authority. Their filing cited Citizen Lab’s FinFisher research.

IFAI is legally mandated to protect citizen data and investigate possible personal data violations by private sector entities, as provided by the Federal Law on Personal Data Protection Held by Private Parties. It is also mandated to impose sanctions if a law has been breached. IFAI has the ability to launch a procedure either on its own initiative or at the request of affected parties. If, after preliminary findings, the IFAI determines that there is sufficient evidence to proclaim that a data breach has taken place, a formal investigation and possible sanctions will follow.

IFAI subsequently opened an official preliminary inquiry asking ISPs whether they were hosting FinFisher servers and what measures they were taking to protect the data of their clients. At the same time, Federal Deputy Juan Pablo Adame proposed a resolution before the Mexican Senate and Congress encouraging IFAI to investigate the use of FinFisher with reference to Citizen Lab’s findings and the requests submitted by civil society to investigate the deployment of FinFisher (registered as IFAI/SPDP/DGV/544/2013 and IFAI/SPDP/DGV/545/2013). The Permanent Assembly approved Adame’s motion, thereby imposing an obligation on the data protection authority to answer all questions submitted by the government.

After the Congress and Senate passed a joint resolution, IFAI announced that it required further information from ISPs and government agencies with powers to acquire surveillance technologies before deciding whether it would open a verification process for Iusacell and UniNet. UniNet denied responsibility for any programs that clients run on their servers, while Iusacell made no comment.

Purchase of FinFisher is confirmed by authorities 

On July 6, 2013, following the Congressional resolution and an IFAI public statement announcing the inquiry, YoSoyRed published a leaked contract and other documents implicating the Mexican Federal Government in the purchase of FinFisher software. The Procuraduría General de la Nación (Office of the Prosecutor or PGR) purchased the surveillance tool from Obses, a security contractor, for up to USD 15.5 million. José Ramirez Becerril, a representative from Obses, unveiled details about the equipment provided to PGN and claimed that other Mexican governmental institutions purchased the software as well. Mexican authorities confirmed that the equipment was purchased directly rather than through the governmental bid system that usually characterizes defence contracts so as not to  “alert organized crime.”

The media heavily scrutinized the leaked FinFisher contracts. The press, however, was more concerned about the amount of public funds allocated to purchasing these technologies than about the technologies themselves. In circumventing the public bid procedure, FinFisher and another surveillance tool called Hunter Punta Tracking/Locsys were sold at an inflated price to Mexican authorities during the Felipe Calderon administration. In response, authorities indicated they would prosecute culpable individuals who conduct illegal surveillance activities. To date, no criminal complaint has been filed, despite strict provisions that prohibit the interception of communications unless authorized by a federal judge and a warrant. The full content of the contracts has not yet been made public.

As the scandal unfolded, Congress offered help to activists on the ground demand greater transparency and accountability. On July 11, 2013, the Mexican Senate and Congress passed a joint resolution in which they demanded a full investigation and disclosure of any contracts between the Secretary of Interior, the PGR, and any other relevant institution. They were asked to send a full report about the purchase of surveillance and hacking systems capable of monitoring mobile phones, electronic communications, chats, and geolocation data from Obses, Gamma Group, Intellego, and EMC Computer Systems, and its affiliates. Congress also called for laws to regulate and restrict purchases of surveillance equipment, extensively quoting the Citizen Lab report in their request. The commercial entities named have not yet responded. IFAI also informed Congress that they would continue the investigation.

Iusacell and UniNet continued to deny hosting FinFisher servers. Iusacell indicated that the servers were located in Malaysia. Further evidence indicates otherwise: Wikileaks’ and La Jornada’s Spyfiles 3 publication revealed that FinFisher developers visited and were active in Mexico.

All Mexicans enjoy a constitutional right to privacy according to the recently amended Article 16 of the Mexican Constitution and the Federal Law on the Protection of Personal Data held by Private Parties, a general privacy framework. IFAI’s mandate ensures full monitoring powers and verification of compliance with these laws. If IFAI fails to open a full investigation, criminal and constitutional complaints can follow and any failure to investigate will be challenged under the basis of flagrancy. Technical assistance is often necessary to test devices and find examples  of infected individuals to support any legal course of action.

IFAI’s investigation is currently ongoing. The Citizen Lab and Cyber Stewards Network will continue supporting the case and helping both the Mexican authorities and the citizens to understand how surveillance systems operates so that they can evaluate whether those employing them are breaking the law.

 

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