State Department to provide Mexican security agency with surveillance apparatus

Leonardo Casas/AP

Civil liberties advocates say the system could violate Americans’ privacy rights.

The State Department plans to award a contract to provide a Mexican government security agency with a system that can intercept and analyze information from all types of communications systems in Mexico, the second such system it has funded in the past five years.

The American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern that the technology also could scoop up communications from American citizens in the United States in contact with Mexicans.

State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, in a contract notice published late Friday, said it will fund what it called the Mexico Technical Surveillance System for use by that country’s Public Security Secretariat to “continue to help deter, prevent and mitigate acts of major federal crimes in Mexico that include narcotics trafficking and terrorism.”

State said it will purchase a monitoring system that enables “the timely receipt, processing, analysis and storage of communications from the national telephonic and other communications service providers in Mexico” and then turn it over to the Mexican government.

The statement of work for the procurement noted the security secretariat has operated a communications interception system since 2006 based on the Reliant Monitoring System provided by Verint Systems Inc., which “intercepts virtually any wired, wireless or broadband communication network and service,” according to the company.

The new procurement will more than triple the capacity of the current Verint system from 30 workstations to 107, State said. The procurement is competitive, but State came close to ruling out any other bidder except Verint with the caveat that “the new equipment must function seamlessly with the existing in a single system or be entirely replaced.”

According to James Bamford, author of three books on the National Security Agency, NSA used Verint technology to snoop on Americans. In an April 3 article in Wired, Bamford said Verint was founded by Israelis working for their nation’s supersecret Unit 8200. On its website, Verint directs press queries on its cyber intelligence products to a contact in Israel.

This is the second contract that State has funded to tap into Mexican telecommunications systems. On Feb. 23, 2007, it awarded a little-noticed $2.9 million contract to Verint for something known as the Communications Intercept system for another Mexican government entity, the Federal Investigations Agency.

That contract called for Verint to provide a system capable of intercepting calls from wired and wireless communications systems, as well as VoIP phone services in Mexico, with a capacity to store online 25,000 hours of phone calls. That system also was designed to intercept email, Internet Relay Chat messages and file transfers for the Federal Investigations Agency.

Thomas Elfmont, in a 2010 master’s thesis for a degree in security studies at Georgetown University, wrote that FIA’s Communications Intercept system was built to network government agents and agencies in both Mexico and the United States. He also said the system’s monitoring station is jointly run by Mexico and the United States.

Elfmont said that since 2007, the Communications Intercept system has played a key role in the location and capture of drug-trafficking kingpins.

Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the ACLU, said the problem with the type of “bulk collection” systems that State has funded for two Mexican government agencies is sooner or later they will collect information on U.S. citizens. Richardson said a significant number of phone calls to the United States originate in Mexico, making it “inevitable” that Americans will have their calls intercepted by the systems.

State and Verint did not respond to queries from Nextgov. Interested bidders must respond to the Mexico Technical Surveillance System solicitation by May 21.