“We always assume we are being watched. It is part of our understanding. We think it’s a tactic to wear us down. We get tipped off by people in the state. They tell us ‘people are listening to you.’…” Would you be surprised to learn that a priest said that? Father Alberto is just one person living under surveillance in Columbia; he was interviewed by Privacy International as it investigated the shadow surveillance state in Columbia. The second investigative report looked into more than a dozen international companies selling surveillance equipment to Columbian government agencies and police.
In the past, “intercepted communications were vital to covert Colombian and CIA operations against the FARC.” The DEA “heavily” supports Esperanza, Columbia’s most visible communications interception system that “can obtain mobile and fixed-line call data.” But it is far from the only surveillance system in the country, surveillance equipment that has been used for unlawful surveillance after being sold and supported by international companies.
Although some Columbian companies “integrate their own tactical interception systems,” such as Emerging Technologies Corporation, which is developing” drone plug n’ play technology with California-based DreamHammer, other equipment is purchased outright at surveillance and security tech trade shows like the “Wiretappers’ Ball” by ISS World. Here are some of the international companies mentioned in Privacy International’s investigative report “Demand/Supply: Exposing the Surveillance Industry in Colombia” (pdf).
“The types of surveillance products purchased by Colombian agencies from the private sector generally fall into two categories – those required for network surveillance and those that facilitate tactical surveillance.”
While you might have heard of some surveillance products, you might not know about some of the smaller tactical products “on sale” in Columbia. For example, have you heard of a child’s car seat being equipped with video and audio recording devices so it can be used for covert surveillance?
Bloomberg Business noted that “LMW Electronics Limited designs, manufactures, and services video and audio transmission systems and rugged covert cameras for directed and intrusive surveillance.” While the LMW surveillance link redirects to this site which offers very little insight, Privacy International’s report included a flyer for the “LMW babyseat” sold by UK company LMW Electronics.
Baby car seat surveillance
The creepy covert surveillance car seat is powered by an internal battery to remotely control the “vertically mounted pan, tilt and zoom camera” with “front and rear viewing” and optical and digital zoom options. Recordings include a “burnt in” timestamp and can be retrieved from a USB drive hidden in the baby seat.
The report also shows a flyer for a credit card recording device by the Swiss company Nagra and a device dubbed a “‘Pointer.” The latter, as seen on the right side in the image above, is “a hand-held device that can be used to determine the direction in which a person using a communications device is travelling.”
Privacy International’s report includes detailed descriptions of network surveillance and the companies who sold it to the Colombian police. It also talks about home-grown firms that worked with international surveillance sellers, but here are some of the international firms which made sure Columbia had invasive network surveillance.
US tech firm Pen-Link provided Columbian agents with the Esperanza interface used “to manage and analyze intercepted phone data and content.” Pen-Link also sells the Lincoln server platform that hosts intercepted data. “Lincoln can ‘receive real-time intercept information delivered by the carriers, for any of the agency’s legally authorized intercepts’.” Pen-Link 8 client software controls the collection process. Pen-Link, Privacy International wrote, “is a preferred supplier” of the DEA.
The report mentions Komcept Solutions’ mobile audio recording device that resembles a briefcase. A quick search found the DM-144 which has 144 miniature microphones (pdf) that can be hidden in a laptop bag and left unattended while it records from over 50 meters away. The person doing the spying can sit elsewhere to control the device, listening live, while appearing to be listening to music via headphones.
Verint Systems Ltd, an Israeli sister company to the US Verint Systems Inc, sold mass surveillance tech to Colombian cops. Verint Systems, back in the 2000s, was involved in supplying the wiretapping equipment to Verizon during the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal. Although the report remarks upon Verint System’s SkyLock system which can “track the location of a mobile phone anywhere in the world,” it primarily talks about Verint’s PUMA.
The PUMA interception system is a “powerful and invasive” technology “designed to collect all data that passes through the cables for subsequent analysis.” PUMA is “linked directly to the service providers’ network infrastructure, usually at the mobile switching center, by a probe that routes all data directly to the law enforcement monitoring facility without interfering with the transmission of the data between the send and recipient.”
PUMA launched in 2007, but while it was being built the police created the Integrated Recording System (IRS) platform. IRS could monitor “massive communications traffic; it “was not limited to targeted surveillance” as it could generate new targets. In 2013, Columbian police contracted Israeli tech company NICE Systems to expand PUMA’s interception capacity; the cops were then able to intercept and collect 100 million cell calls and 20 million text messages per day without service providers’ knowledge.
Super-PUMA could also monitor ISP traffic and up to 700 workstations; data was “intercepted by eight ‘NiceTrack IP’ probes that ‘filter and extract huge quantities of data delivered simultaneously over highly loaded IP links’.” For the first time, 4G data could also be intercepted.
Another company, UK-headquartered Network Critical, provided “fiber optic passive traffic access points;” it’s used as a network sniffer.