Daniel Ortega’s regime purchased espionage and intelligence programs from private Israeli technological companies, which according to an Israeli journalistic investigation have been used in several countries, including Nicaragua, to “find and detain human rights activists, persecute members of the LGBT community and silence citizens who criticize their government.”
These surveillance programs manipulate and appropriate all the activities of a smartphone, such as the user’s location, sites visited and personal contacts. Furthermore, these technological tools can turn the equipment into a secret recording device.
The investigation from the Israeli Newspaper Haaretz, includes Nicaragua in the following list of countries: Bahrain, Indonesia, Angola, Mozambique, Dominican Republic, Azerbaijan, Botswana, Bangladesh, El Salvador, Panama and Nicaragua. In addition, the publication corroborated previous reports on sales of the Israeli technology to Malaysia, Vietnam, Mexico, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, Peru, Colombia, Uganda, Nigeria, Ecuador and the United Arab Emirates.
The security forces of these countries buy these programs with the commitment to the Israeli companies, that they will use them to fight organize crime, criminal or terrorist groups. However, senior officials of the companies admit, in the publication, that “once the systems are sold, there is no way to avoid their abuse.”
Today, every governmental agency that respects and does not respects the privacy of its citizens is equipped with espionage capacities created in Herzliya Pituah (in Tel Aviv, Israel),” states Haaretz in the publication, based on 100 sources and 15 countries.
The newspaper investigation also found that Israeli companies continued selling espionage products, even when it was revealed that the equipment was being used for malicious purposes.
Three international studies
This is the third international investigation, since 2017, that includes Nicaragua among the countries using surveillance programs against the civilian population. The first of these studies was: Verified cases of illegitimate use of surveillance software by governments in Latin America produced by two academics from Argentina and Ecuador.
The Citizen Lab Institute of the University of Toronto, in Canada, has also mentioned Nicaragua among the Latin American countries that spy on its citizens. Researchers from this center uncovered last year the governmental use of Pegasus spyware against Mexican politicians, lawyers, journalists, activists and researchers.
Like a traditional software company, the NSO Group prices its surveillance tools by number of targets, starting with a fixed installment fee of half a million dollars. To spy on ten iPhone users, NSO charges governmental agencies $650,000 dollars, and similarly for ten Android users.
One hundred additional targets will cost $800,000 dollars, 50 additional targets would cost half a million dollars, and 20 additional targets would cost a quarter of a million dollars, according to the commercial proposal from the NSO Group. There is an annual system maintenance fee of 17% of the total price each year.
Despite the mention in those investigations, Nicaraguan experts told CONFIDENCIAL that in the country “we still are” at the level of “suspicion,” since it is not yet known with certainty which espionage program the regime uses.
“We learned about the case of a citizen who discovered that his phone was tapped. He tried to reformat it, but seeing that it did not work, he smashed it on the floor. We needed the device to know which program they used,” said the digital security analyst.
He added that “when a person suspects that they have a telephone tapped, they almost never report it or look for an expert.”
Checking the telephones of the “self-convoked” protestors
The source said that citizens arrested by the National Police, in the context of civic protests, who were later released and got their mobile phones back, should seek an expert to check them and detect what programs they could have installed.
In recent months, several human rights activists have denounced espionage from the regime’s security forces. This week, official media leaked an audio of Monsignor Silvio Baez, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdioceses of Managua, for which they accused him of conspiracy. The son of the presidential couple, Laureano Ortega Murillo, call him a “coup monger” and “assassin.” However, it was classified as a “manipulation” by a sound engineer, consulted by a Spanish newspaper.
In Nicaragua, intelligence agencies currently operate from the Army and the Ministry of the Interior (Mingob). The Intelligence Directorate that operates in the National Police, is under Mingob.
Discard Pegasus in Nicaragua
The Pegasus malware, developed by the Israeli conglomerate NSO Group, is the most famous program and in 2016, Forbes Magazine called it “the most invasive mobile spy kit in the world.”
Pegasus allows almost unlimited phone monitoring, eavesdrop and tapes close conversations, photographs those near the phone, reads and writes text messages and E-mails.
A journalist from Haaretz newspaper told CONFIDENCIAL, via E-mail, that “in the case of Nicaragua, the information does not mention Pegasus and NSO.”
However, the Nicaraguan expert does not rule out the use of this program in Nicaragua, although it is difficult to confirm it because it is a malware that works in total secrecy.
Israeli dominance in the industry
The investigation by Haaretz points out that the British NGO Privacy International published a report two years ago that revealed the “tremendous” growth of international trade in surveillance technology.
While in 2012 it comprised 246 companies worldwide, by 2016 the quantity had more than doubled to 528. There are 27 Israeli firms on the list, which makes Israel the country with the highest proportion of surveillance technology.
Local and international data indicate that Israel represents between 10% to 20% of the global cyber market. In 2016, investments in new Israeli companies in this industry accounted for 20% of the world total.
Tips to avoid telephone espionage
Experts explain that it is difficult to detect when a telephone has been infected with a spy program, since these software work in secret. However, they give some advice to protect ourselves.
- Do not open E-mails or SMS and WhatsApp messages of unknown people or numbers.
- Do not neglect your phone in public places.
- Do not give your phone to charged just anywhere.
- Lock access to the phone with password or fingerprint.
- Lock the SIM card, with a password of four to eight digits.