On a sunny morning dozens of protesters reeling from the coronavirus pandemic gathered in Mexico City’s central square to demand financial support, while workers rushed by with their heads buried in their phones.
What could not be seen were the signals containing reams of personal data that researchers say might have been captured by a nearby “fake antenna” to monitor passersby without their knowledge.
More than 20 such surveillance devices were mapped in the capital’s public spaces by Fake Antenna Detection Project (FADe), a research initiative from Chilean digital rights group South Lighthouse.
“There are public offices, civil society organizations, public demonstrations going on there,” FADe technical lead Carlos Guerra said. “It’s hard to grasp the possible scope of the surveillance.”
The fake antennas suggest the presence of international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) catchers, also known as “stingrays,” which mimic cellphone towers to force cellphones in the area to transmit “pings” back to the devices, enabling law enforcement to track a suspect’s phone and pinpoint its location.
Critics of the technology call it invasive and say it has been regularly used in secret to catch US criminal suspects and monitor protesters, for example by intercepting the contents of text messages.
The Mexico City area appears to have the second-highest concentration of IMSI catchers of any place analyzed by South Lighthouse in the Americas, after Caracas, according to a report published last week.
“You put up the tower ... and it starts invading the privacy of tens, hundreds or even thousands of people nearby,” said Luis Fernando Garcia, founder of Mexican digital rights group R3D.
There is no legislation in Mexico on how the technology should be used — making it ripe for abuse, Garcia said.
“These technologies aren’t regulated ... we don’t think they could be legal,” he said.
Stingrays can reveal personal information about innocent passersby, even if they have not been accused of committing a crime, warns digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
‘NO MORE BIRDS’
Homicides in Mexico hit record levels in the first four months of this year, climbing by 2.4 percent from the same period last year, official data showed last month, in a blow to the government’s efforts to restore order.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pledged in a 2018 news conference that there would be “no more birds on the wire” and that Mexicans could talk on their phones without fear of people listening in — although he did not mention stingrays specifically.
A MURKY TRADE
The use of surveillance devices like stingrays is underpinned by a global murky trade, digital rights activists say.
Technology companies based in the US, Europe, and Israel manufacture and sell such devices to law enforcement agencies around the world, said Ilia Siatitsa, legal officer at digital rights group Privacy International.
“They’ve just become a commodity that is out there and anyone can just go buy,” Siatitsa said.
It is unclear who operates these cellphone towers in Mexico, but researchers recently unearthed contracts suggesting the Mexican military might have purchased them.
Mexican transparency group PODER has identified 21 contracts for 2011 to last year between the Mexican government and US tech firm L3Harris Technologies, which exports stingrays — although the contracts did not specify the exact technology purchased.
A Mexican Secretariat of National Defense spokesperson said that it does not intercept communications and that the contracts identified by PODER had nothing to do with IMSI catchers.
The ministry is working on releasing public versions of the contracts, the spokesman said. The office of the president referred questions to the military.
An L3 Harris spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment about its contracts with the Mexican government.
Stingrays are being used by security forces globally under the guise of tracking criminals, Privacy International and others have said.
In 2016, Internet watchdog Citizen Lab and Mexican civil society groups found that advanced Israeli surveillance technology had been deployed by federal and state law enforcement against women’s and indigenous rights activists, among other targets.
Privacy International has called on British authorities to disclose whether police purchased and used IMSI catchers, following a 2016 investigation by the media company Bristol Cable.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the US last year ruled that law enforcement must obtain a warrant before using a cell site simulator.
Use of surveillance technology can have a “chilling effect” on protesters and public gatherings, Siatitsa said.
“I am now thinking about how many meetings I’ve had near there [the central plaza], how many protests I may have attended,” said Vladimir Cortes Roshdestvensky, a Mexico-based digital rights officer at freedom of expression group Article 19.
“Now I am asking: how much of my data did they take?” he added.
Maria Virginia, a woman who was sitting just off the main square and awaiting her shift at a silver shop, said she would feel robbed if someone were collecting data from her cellphone without her knowing.
“It’s an invisible robbery,” she said. “It’s a hidden risk for all regular citizens.”
After South Lighthouse released its report, a coalition of Mexican digital rights organizations, including R3D and Article 19, demanded the government impose a moratorium on the use of IMSI catchers and launch an independent investigation into arbitrary surveillance.
“The government says there are no birds on the wire,” Cortes Roshdestvensky said. “Well, now we have evidence that that might not be true — we need some answers.”
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