Exclusive: Documents Illuminate Ecuador's Spying Practices
The country where anti-surveillance hero Edward Snowden wants to take refuge spent half a million dollars on an Israeli-made "GSM interceptor" in a deal brokered by a U.S. middleman. Seeking the capacity to "intercept text messages, falsify and modify the text messages" among other tricks.
WASHINGTON — The intelligence agency of Ecuador appears to have sought in recent months to obtain new equipment for a large-scale surveillance, according to confidential government documents obtained by BuzzFeed.
The capabilities sought by Ecuador resemble the National Security Agency practices revealed by Edward Snowden, who is reportedly seeking asylum in the left-leaning Latin American republic.
The Ecuadorian documents — stamped "Secret" — obtained by BuzzFeed appear to show the government purchasing a "GSM Interceptor" system, among other domestic spying tools, and they suggest a commitment to domestic surveillance that rivals the practices by the United States' National Security Agency that are at the center of a fierce national debate. They include both covert surveillance capacities and the targeting of President Rafael Correa's enemies on social media. According to the files, SENAIN keeps close tabs on the Facebook and Twitter accounts of journalists, opposition politicians and other individuals, some with few followers.
Ecuador, which has been harboring WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for over a year at its embassy, has been internationally criticized for a recent communications law that is widely seen as a gag order for the media and includes prohibitions on "media lynching."
Ecuador also has a record of being ahead of the game in domestic surveillance. Last year, it became the first country in the world to implement a nation-wide facial and voice recognition system.
The documents and correspondence obtained by BuzzFeed appear to show that SENAIN, Ecuador's intelligence agency, paid $526,500 January 2013 for equipment through 500 Smart Solutions LLC, a company registered in Delaware that is listed as having an office in New York. The payment, according to the documents, was for services rendered from August to December 2012. Smart Solutions acted as an intermediary through which SENAIN could buy materials from two Israeli security contractors: Elkat LTD Security Engineering and UVision Air LTD, which manufactures drones. SENAIN bought surveillance equipment from the companies through Smart Solutions.
Elkat is described by the publication IsraelDefense as "a leading Israeli distributor of advanced electronic equipment for the security field" whose products include "highly advanced electronic surveillance systems." It is based in Tel Aviv.
The documents were provided to BuzzFeed from inside SENAIN through activists who wished to call attention to the government's spying practices in the context of its new international role. The sources who provided the documents on the condition of anonymity, citing the dangers of attempting to publicize them domestically.
They also suggest that the Ecuadorians sought to buy drones. Smart Solution proposed two surveillance systems to SENAIN, one called the "Semi Active GSM Interceptor System" and the other called a "Passive Surveillance System. "
In a letter to Pablo Romero last year in June, a Smart Solutions representative named Gabriel Guecelevich touted the capabilities of the GSM system, promising the abillity to "copy SIM cards, identify phone calls, route phone calls to different places, intercept text messages, falsify and modify the text messages, keep messages in their system, disconnect calls, block phone calls, system should be able to intercept a minimum of 4 phone calls simultaneously."
(The correspondence, posted in full below, is in Spanish.)
Guecelevich also specified that the GSM system, which has previously been mentioned in WikiLeaks files as a spy tool, can be used from a car that is 250 meters away and that it is portable. Guecelevich explained which tests Smart Solutions can run to prove that the system works. The first system, he wrote, is intercepting technology; the second is a passive system that can intercept GSM communication which Guecelevich promised can process 32 channels simultaneously, record conversations, among other capabilities.
In August, an official from SENAIN wrote to Smart Solutions about wanting to acquire unmanned drones.
"The National Secretary of Intelligence, which has within its powers projects focused on national security, is moving forward with a project to acquire unmanned aerial vehicles," communications and special projects coordinator José Miguel Delgado wrote. "It is for this reason that we need to know whether Smart Solution is capable and legally able to provide these assets or services."
Delgado also wrote to Smart Solutions about conducting GSM tests in the city of Tulcan in August.
Also in August, the Israeli company Elkat gave Smart Solution permission to sell products from Uvision to "potential clients in Ecuador," according to the documents.
One of the documents is a draft of a letter Romero wrote to Smart Solution to let them know of the decision to purchase the equipment and the $526,500 payment for the equipment. Payment was promised upon the delivery of the goods in March.
Invoices Smart Solution sent to SENAIN for equipment and internal SENAIN calculations also tabulate the cost. Two of the documents show plans for a new SENAIN center in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador.
Smart Solution was incorporated in Delaware by Guecelevich on July 25, 2012, and lists only a Delaware address. Guecelevich did not return a request for comment, and the company has no obvious public presence.
The people who provided BuzzFeed with these documents say that they attempted to leak them to WikiLeaks three days ago, but were unsuccessful. WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson called this claim "false" and said "No one in our team recognises having been approached with such material as you describe."
Ecuadorian officials did not respond to a inquiry through their embassy in Washington.
This post has been updated with a comment from the WikiLeaks spokesman. (6/26, 12:13 p.m.)
Update: Scribd has removed the documents from its site. They can now be found in this Dropbox folder. (6/28, 12:35 a.m.)
Update: The documents are now on DocumentCloud: (6/28 10:16 a.m.)