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Mexico To Deploy Nationwide Electronic Surveillance System With State Dept. Help

The Narcosphere/Stephen Peacock | January 14 2006

The U.S. State Dept. is coordinating the deployment of a nationwide electronic-surveillance system in Mexico, a project that will enable the Agencia Federal de Investigaciones (AFI) to intercept phone conversations and online messages from every telecommunications network within Mexico.

According to documents obtained via the Federal Business Opportunities contracting database, this new system will enable the mass collection and analysis of communications and information, thereby helping to prevent “acts of major federal crimes in Mexico that include narcotics trafficking and terrorism.” The “statement of work” guiding this planning stage of this project makes clear that all U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies are slated to become indirect beneficiaries of this monitoring system.
The motivation behind the communications-intercept system is to strengthen the ability of both governments “to disseminate timely and accurate” information to one another’s “federal, state, local, private, and international partners,” it says. “Provision of this data will ensure that the Mexican Government will have information to expeditiously thwart and confront criminal and terrorist activity.”

The project involves construction of a surveillance command center within AFI’s headquarters, which eventually will be linked to phone company and Internet service provider (ISP) networks nationwide. Government technicians staffing the center will be capable of programming and tapping into targeted phone numbers without the prior assistance of phone service providers or ISPs, the documents show. The techs also will be able to “transfer monitored calls made to cellular or fixed phones, to an agent located on the field,” it says.

The system will have a minimum 25,000-hour capacity to store audio and data transmissions seized by Mexican authorities, according to the documents. The plan envisions that 30 staffers will be on hand at any time for real-time monitoring of various communications ranging from phone calls and faxes, to e-mails and online chats by the respective customers of Telmex, Telcel, Nextel, Telefonica, Unefon, Isuacel, and Prodigy.

While the system would allow those staffers to “collect, monitor and record” a total of 60 calls at once, it also would have access to a database capable of targeting up to 8 million communication “sessions” for future reference. A data bank of seized conversations would make it possible to “compare, recognize and identify” voices when necessary.

Another feature of the planned surveillance center will be its ability to pinpoint the location of targeted cell phone users automatically and in real time, as it will be linked to “plans and maps of the entire Mexican Republic,” the work statement says: “The system will provide tracking information and tools for searching and mapping to law enforcement and intelligence organizations.”

The AFI will own and operate the system once it is completed. However, initially the agency will share oversight of construction and technical testing with the U.S. Embassy Mexico Narcotics Affairs Section and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Equipment purchased for the project must originate from the U.S. and meet the technical standards of the “digital wiretap” law formally known as the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) of 1994, which required U.S. communications providers to remove specific, technical impediments to electronic surveillance.

Although the U.S. Congress had appropriated $500 million to reimburse industry for meeting those requirements, the full implementation of CALEA was drawn out nearly a decade due to legal challenges from industry and privacy groups. The current effort in Mexico is more modest, with an expected cost of $1 million a year over a four-year period.

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