Paraguayan Officials Sought Hacking Team to Spy on Constituents

Hacking Team sold tools to several authoritarian governments throughout Latin America. (<a href="" target="_blank">Luca Grivet</a>)
Hacking Team sold tools to several authoritarian governments throughout Latin America. (Luca Grivet)

EspañolHacking Team is an Italian company, with branches in Singapore and the United States, that sells intelligence and spying software to just about any government across the globe. Reporters without Borders has labeled them one of the five “digital mercenaries” and “enemies of the internet,” since they sell “products that are liable to be used by governments to violate human rights and freedom of information.”

In what technology journalists have called the security industry’s version of the Edward Snowden leaks, on July 5 an unknown hacker released 400 gigabytes of information from Hacking Team’s servers, including e-mails, financial data, and the source code of their flagship software.

The leak revealed client authoritarian governments such as Ethiopia, Egypt, Morocco, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. While in Latin America, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, and Panama bought software from Hacking Team, to enable spying on their citizens.

To make the leaked information more accessible to journalists around the world, on Thursday, July 9, Wikileaks uploaded a searchable archive with 1 million internal Hacking Team e-mails.

New governments began to surface, with Paraguay among them. The leak shows the Southern Cone was interested in becoming a customer of the Italian-based hackers.

Meetings in Asunción

The PanAm Post reviewed the e-mails at the Wikileaks archive, and found that Hacking Team offered and negotiated spying equipment with at least two Paraguayan government agencies.

“Business proposal from Hacking Team to Paraguay’s Prosecutor’s Office: US$620,000.”

The internal correspondence shows that between May 5 and May 6, 2014, Hacking Team representatives met with Paraguayan prosecutors and the Defense minister in Asunción to pitch them the Remote Control System (RCS) Galileo. This powerful tool allows the client to remotely infiltrate and collect data from computers and cellphones.

Hacking Team’s local partner in Paraguay, security state contractor Radar, presented the proposal valued at US$620,000. A third meeting between Hacking Team representatives and the country’s attorney general took place on May 6.

Alex Velasco, Hacking Team’s Key Account Manager, wrote in his report of the meetings that the defense minister was “very interested” in the system and said he would request from President Horacio Cartes the funds necessary to buy it.

After reporting the findings on Thursday afternoon on local Radio Cardinal, journalist Santiago González promptly called the cyber-crimes prosecutor, Ariel Martínez, who confirmed he had met with Hacking Team representatives in May 2014. However, he denied that the Prosecutor’s Office bought Galileo, and shrugged it off, claiming they “receive similar proposals every day.”

“It’s hair-rising all the things you can do with this technology,” prosecutor Ariel Martínez on [Hacking Team’s] spy tools.”

However, the negotiations with the Paraguayan government didn’t stop there. In October 2014, Hacking Team’s local partner requested the budget for other products, proving the Paraguayan authorities did follow up on the offer. Moreover, by January 2015, even the Office of the President was aware of the Galileo system offered by the Italian hackers: its technology information adviser contacted Radar for further information.

So far, no concrete evidence has emerged to confirm that the Paraguayan officials made the final purchase of any equipment, but their interest in surveillance tools is beyond doubt. Had they ordered Galileo or another tool, the public would unlikely have had an official channel to find out anyway. Every year, the executive branch allocates a portion of the country’s annual budget for “reserved expenses.” These can be used without much justification or accountability, keeping external controls at bay.

This is not the first time the government of Paraguay has attempted to spy on its citizens.

In June this year, after intense public pressure, Congress rejected a bill backed by the Prosecutor’s Office which sought to roll out a massive surveillance system, with the stated goal of fighting crime online.

In 2012, the Federico Franco administration (2012-2013) bought wiretapping equipment for $2.5 million that mysteriously vanished from the offices of the Interior Ministry, according to the executive branch’s general audit in November 2013.

Translated by Adam Dubove.

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