Snooping on citizens: How an Israeli company might come to determine our politics

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Surveillance of political opponents is becoming a major issue with reports appearing on social media that with the aid of an Israeli firm, the government is snooping on its opponents. Weekly takes a look at the growing role of an Israeli firm – ECI – and how it’s coming to play an outsized role within our local politics. 

An influential Facebook user, Paul Lismore, writes that a team of Israelis is using a white van to snoop on the opposition on behalf of the government. They are, he alleges, operating out of the house of ta top civil servant and a key right hand man of the prime minister, Pravind Jugnauth. 

This is no simple internet paranoia. The roots of the white van mystery lie in a meeting that took place on foreign shores. In May 2015, three officials from Mauritius’ National Security Service (NSS) – the intelligence arm of the Mauritian police force that keeps tabs on the opposition and keeps an eye on the government’s popularity in the country – met with three officials from an Israeli firm – ECI Telecom – in Copenhagen. The purpose of the meeting was to buy equipment that could be placed in a mobile van to listen in on phone conversations as well as intercept messages and internet signals. That deal was how the white Nissan van appeared on our shores and started appearing on social media. 

It was natural that the Mauritian government would turn to the Israelis. In recent years, its surveillance industry has grown as a major export. The Israeli army’s unit 8-200 is one of the largest units in the Israeli army specialising in surveillance, telephone and internet tapping and decrypting messages. With Palestinians as guinea pigs for the industry, many members of 8-200 (Forbes estimated that 80 percent of all staff in the Israeli surveillance industry are former members of unit 8.200) have gone on to found or work in private sector firms offering similar surveillance tools to a host of governments.  By 2018, Israeli surveillance tech had already outpaced its arms exports, totaling US$6 billion and capturing over 10 percent of the global cyber security market. These firms sell the ability of foreign governments to snoop in on their political opponents and other citizens and, in return, earn Israel some hard cash. 

Founded in 1961, ECI Telecom Ltd has been one of the more prominent companies involved in this sordid industry. ECI is the main telecoms vendor for the Israeli military, a business which accounted for nearly 17 percent of the group’s total revenue in 2017, according to an investor prospectus floated by ECI back in September 2018 and obtained by Weekly. And it aggressively markets its telecoms and surveillance business. In 2010, one of its subsidiaries, Veraz, (concentrating on mobile phones tech and surveillance) was fined US$300,000 in China for trying to bribe Chinese officials to get contracts. Another division of ECI, ECtel, pioneered the phone and internet surveillance market in Israel. In return, ECI gets strong backing from the Israeli state, which paid it $14.3 million and $10.6 million in grants in 2016 and 2017 respectively, according to its internal documents. 

“A surveillance van in exchange for a Rs210 million deal and a government amending the laws of the land to make such a deal possible.”

ECI is a part of what in Israel is called the IC3 (Israeli Cyber Companies Consortium) network. In 2016, the Israeli Ministry of the Economy decided to bunch together a consortium of firms offering similar surveillance tech under the leadership of the military’s Israel Aerospace Authorities which includes Checkpoint, Bynet, Cyber X, ClearSky, Verint and ECI. The idea was that these companies would work with one another in selling surveillance tech to regimes abroad (with the blessing of the Israeli government) and in return link up with one another. Just how interlinked ECI’s ecosystem is to the darker sides of surveillance can be gleaned from the fact that back in 2004, Verint invested US$ 30 million in ECtel (the division of ECI). And until recently, Verint was in the running to buy the NSO Group which made the news recently for selling the ‘Pegasus’ programme to unsavoury regimes allowing them to crack into WhatsApp. 

This is how it works: A call is placed on WhatsApp – whether it’s picked up or not – and installs malware on the phone, siphoning off its content within minutes to another computer halfway across the world where it can then be decrypted. This was the programme that allowed the Saudi authorities to track and kill critical journalist Jamal Khashoggi. According to reports appearing in the New York Times as well as Amnesty International it has also been linked to the surveillance and, in some cases, killings of opposition figures and activists in Mexico, Bahrain, Kazakhstan and the United Arab Emirates. Verint itself (a member of the same consortium as ECI) has been linked to the sales of surveillance tech to unsavoury regimes throughout Central Asia. NSO claimed that Pegasus customers were vetted by the Israeli government itself, much as the consortium in which the ECI is part of, also operates under Israeli government supervision. What emerges from this picture is an inter-linked surveillance industry which serves both as a ready source of hard cash for Tel Aviv as well as a diplomatic tool to reach out to other governments all the while allowing Tel Aviv to deny any wrongdoing should the activities of these companies be found out. ECI makes up a fat chunk of that consortium and – given its long history of surveillance tech – it is one of its oldest members. That is why the Mauritian government, when it turned, turned to ECI. 

“What the ECI is doing is helping lay the groundwork for an unprecedented degree of government surveillance and all within a legal wild west.”

ECI’s ambitions in Mauritius, however, are not limited to supplying mere snooping vans. This is where the plot really gets interesting. A little over a year after NSS officials met representatives from ECI in Copenhagen in 2015, in August 2016, the law was amended by the Mauritian government to allow the Central Electricity Board (CEB) or its subsidiaries to allot contracts over Rs100 million without having to go through a public tendering process. In October 2016, the CEB set up a number of private subsidiaries, one of which was the CEB (Fibernet) Co. Ltd, specifically to allocate the contract to upgrade Mauritius’ fiber optic network, which supplies internet to local telecoms companies. As a private subsidiary, CEB Fibernet’s dealings would fall outside the ambit of the Audit Office and since it does not have to go through a tender, it could allocate the contract to anyone it wants. In this case, the CEB Fibernet decided to give the contract to the very same ECI Telecom! The Israeli company stands to be paid Rs210 million out of the deal.  

This extends way beyond a simple quid pro quo: a surveillance van in exchange for a Rs210 million deal and a government amending the laws of the land to make such a deal possible.  The fact that it’s the ECI that’s going to be upgrading the country’s fiber optic network should have sent alarm bells ringing.  Since the 1980s, it’s been known how to tap into fiber optic networks for surveillance purposes. And unlike the much more publicised WhatsApp attacks by the NSO Group, fiber optic surveillance is actually much more widespread and on a much larger scale. 

Essentially how it works is this: fiber optic cables send signals to and fro using beams of light (hence the ‘optic’ in the name). For somebody to hack into the system, all one has to do is simply re-route part of the beam onto a receiver and all the information being carried would be made available. If it is in encrypted form, it can simply be decrypted at will. Given that lots of homes use a single cable at a time, potentially, whoever is doing the surveillance will have access to, and be able to sift through the internet data of lots of homes in the process of any surveillance operation. This is how surveillance programmes are run: telecoms companies leave lots of little ‘branches’ within their network system for government agencies to harvest and sift through the information. ECI telecom – a company very much in the government surveillance business – would be in a position not just to upgrade the fibre optic network of the country, but also to re-engineer the fibre optic system in such a way as to leave plenty of little such harvest points. In effect, what the ECI is doing is laying down an information pipeline straight to the government. 

The ECI’s new surveillance tech is increasingly falling on fertile ground in Mauritius. Although the government strenuously denies any such surveillance activity, it has deliberately left such activity within a legal grey zone. When asked in parliament about phone tapping by the government, it has on multiple occasions pointed out that although the constitution disallows it, section 12 of the constitution allows an exception in the interests of defence, public safety, order and morality. The explanation then turns into a procedural description where the police then get a judge’s order before doing any such surveillance on a citizen. Except of course that this is far from true. As part of their licensing agreement, telecoms companies are bound to hand over information on any of their users to the government and to the police. And section 25 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (terrorism: that evergreen excuse for any manner of despotism) allows the prime minister to simply demand that telecoms providers hand over any information they have, or allow the police to monitor any communications. No judge, no warrant, no paperwork. It’s hard to imagine that government has been bothering judges about phone tapping when the law allows them to make that call on their own. 

Now, is there a difference between tapping a phone line, or a mobile phone? Is there a difference between knowing who placed which calls where and using a mobile phone to track an individual’s location in real time? The law is silent on all this. That’s by design. The government has also refused to set up legal rules for the Safe City project being set up by Mauritius Telecom and Huawei that would allow the government to track citizens through facial recognition technology through a network of 4,000 CCTV cameras across the country. According to a source who has had experience of such matters, “the law is totally silent on surveillance, and it’s that silence which allows anything to go on”. He goes on to add, “I always assume that the government is listening in on phone conversations”. What the ECI is doing is going much farther; it’s actually in a position to set up a network that would allow the government to set up a parallel snooping department, and all outside the ambit of the law. 

The nexus between the government and the ECI extends far beyond simply supplying tech. In effect, what the ECI – a company long specialising in surveillance on behalf of dictatorial governments – is doing is helping lay the groundwork for an unprecedented degree of government surveillance and all within a legal wild west. As the government’s appetite for snooping on its own citizens and political opponents grows, the shadow of ECI over our politics will continue to grow apace. 

For more views and in-depth analysis of current issues, Weekly magazine (Price: Rs 25) or subscribe to Weekly for Rs110 a month. (Free delivery to your doorstep). Email us on: [email protected]

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