El Salvador / Transparency

El Salvador Obtained Three New Spyware Tools in 2020 from Israeli Intermediary

Familia Zangilevitch

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Roman Gressier

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On October 19, 2020, the director of the Salvadoran Police approved the purchase of three surveillance tools from Eyetech Solutions, a transnational intermediary to Israeli spyware manufacturers. A new investigation by El Faro’s Jimmy Alvarado, including product materials and contracts from Guacamaya Leaks, revealed that the Bukele administration paid just over $2.2 million USD for the one-year service agreement.

First was a “Wave Guard Tracer” or “Guardian,” designed by Wave Guard Technologies to trace calls, SMS, data sessions, and even inactive phones to identify where a target has been, their contacts, and on what apps they talk with them. The firm says the product, bought by the police for $793,000 pre-tax, works despite SIM swaps and network changes.

The second acquisition, for $480,000, was a “GEOLOC” or “IMSI catcher” system designed in Cyprus and sold by an unknown Israeli firm. They are mobile antennas that intercept signals between SIM cards and phone towers to conduct physical surveillance, including from moving vehicles.

The third tool is “Web Tangles,” purchased by the Israeli company Cobwebs Technologies for $680,000, which creates identity reports on the owners of social media accounts (“sports fan, traveler”) with facial recognition, GPS and WiFi signals, and a search engine connecting information like phone numbers, emails, and usernames on the deep web.

The Police bought them for a “comprehensive investigation and analysis platform,” according to the contract.

In December 2021, Meta reported that it had eliminated 200 accounts on its platforms (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp) “operated by Cobwebs and its clients worldwide” to “join closed communities and forums and trick people into revealing personal information.” Meta added: “[w]e also observed frequent targeting of activists, opposition politicians and government officials in Hong Kong and Mexico.”

On February 1, 2022, 13 months after the Salvadoran Police acquired these services, the Bukele-controlled Assembly approved reforms to the Code of Criminal Procedure to legalize the judicial use of information obtained by this type of tools.

The reform was approved three weeks after digital experts’ January 2022 revelation of mass use of Pegasus spyware on journalists and civil society in El Salvador. The Salvadoran Journalists’ Association denounced the legislation as the “legalization of espionage.”

“They are acquiring this technology without a regulatory framework,” an expert from Front Line Defenders told El Faro’s Alvarado, making impossible any accountability for the use of these tools. “They could obtain most of this information through warrants to the phone companies, so something strange is happening when they seek it by this other avenue.”

Since Mar. 27, 2022, under the state of exception renewed every month by the Assembly, the right to private communications has been, in any case, suspended in El Salvador now for 10 months in a row. Meanwhile, the state claims to have made over 61,000 arrests.

The middleman

The $2.2 million-dollar contract for the purchase of the three spyware tools was given to an Israeli businessman based in Mexico and personal friend of Nayib Bukele.

Seven and a half months before the National Civil Police of El Salvador bought the tools from Eyetech Solutions, Bukele spoke at the wedding of Yaniv Zangilevitch, owner of the company. With Bukele were his wife and state intelligence director Peter Dumas.

According to Zangilevitch’s LinkedIn, he was a “special operations official” with the Israeli Defense Force from 1991 to 1997. He next worked from 1997 to 2009 as a “specialist in the fight against terrorism” for the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other prime ministers. Since 2011 he is the owner and CEO of Eyetech Solutions.

According to the Mexican magazine Proceso, Eyetech is the Mexico distributor of other companies tied to Israel like Circles, based in Bulgaria. In 2014, Circles (of which El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are reported clients) was fused with the Israeli firm NSO Group, the creator of Pegasus.

In Mexico, Eyetech has been denounced for negotiating contracts inflated up to five times the initial cost for the project “Yucatán Shield.” The news outlet Sol de Yucatán reported in November 2021 that the country gave gifts to officials in the city of Toluca.

In September 2021, the Salvadoran government prepared to renew Eyetech’s contract for one more year. The Police requested quotes from two firms, Eyetech and the Israeli company Cognyte (also named in the Meta report), for GEOLOC antennas.

The Police chose Eyetech’s offer of “UT-X Zeus” equipment. The competitor Cognyte asked for the contract to be annulled, claiming that only they had the rights to sell UT-X, but Zangilevitch’s firm held onto the contract anyway.

This article first appeared in the January 30 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here to tune into Central America.

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