By Haggai Matsiko
State House, police get Shs10bn phone tapping gadgets
State House and the Uganda Police are in final stages of acquiring stealth technology from Italy that could allow its operators to remotely control targeted computers and smart mobile phones. The deal is being handled by the office of the Inspector General of Police, Gen. Kale Kayihura, and costs about Shs10 billion. The Independent has learnt that the buy is to be signed end of July or early August according to communication between the dealers.
Under the deal, technology, under what is technically called `offensive security’, would be provided by an Italian company called Hacking Team to enable President’s Office and the police to remotely attack and control targeted computers and phones. It would enable them to retrieve information such as keys pressed, websites visited, emails, instant messages sent and received, and the contents of files created on the PCs and programs used.
Internally, the emails and the investigation by The Independent reveal that Uganda’s intelligence is determined to acquire the technology in its hunt against political foes of President Yoweri Museveni’s government; be it potential terrorists and opposition politicians.
But critics warn that when governments are armed with such surveillance tools, the rights of innocent people opposing the regime are at risk of being abused.
Israel Vs Bangladesh agents
The Independent has learnt that although the technology is made in Italy, Uganda could be acquiring it through competing middlemen from Israel’s Nice Systems and Bangladesh’s Sraban Engineering & Technologies. The Israelis are represented by two agents; Dan Weinberg and DotanPeltz, while the Bangladesh are represented by Sraban’s director, Zakiruddin Chowdhury.
Both teams have met with the police in Uganda, according to emails.
In one email Chowdhury wrote:”I am in Uganda now and will have a meeting with the Head of ICT, Uganda Police. Can you please check if this account is open? [For your information], I am here on business and my local contact is highly connected.”
On May 18, Chowdhury wrote back to the Hacking Team saying he had met with the top police core team who had assured him they would get the budget allocation for the software.
Chowdhury also wrote informing Emad Shehata, the Key Account Manager at Hacking Team that he would be returning to Uganda late this month or early August.
“During my last visit, I have initiated a number of LEA projects and my next visit will be to get these into motion. Is your team available for a visit for DEMO during that time? Please let me know so that I can plan accordingly,” Chowdhury wrote.
These details emerged recently following the release, by WikiLeaks, of more than one million leaked emails from the Italian Hacking Team company.
Hacking Team was targeted because it is globally known for dealing selling IT security and hacking technology to some of the most notorious companies and countries around the world.
The Italian company has been selling surveillance tools to repressive regimes like Sudan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Ecuador, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The tools it sells have rare capabilities that can copy passwords, copy email, instant message conversations and turn on a target’s camera and microphone. The Wiki Leaks emails have exposed the underbelly of the global surveillance industry.
From the email exchanges, it appears, the agents at the Israeli-based Nice stand a better chance of closing the deal that could revolutionalise the hacking efforts of Uganda’s spy agencies. Already, Uganda boasts of a team of Israeli trained spies with hacking skills.
One of the tools President Museveni’s office is interested in, for instance, is Hacking Team’s Remote Control System (RCS).
“We have a new opportunity for RCS in Uganda – the customer is the “Office of the President”, wrote Adam Weinberg, “We trust that it is OK with you to move forward with this customer? Assuming that the answer is positive, we need an offer with the following scope.”
Weinberg noted as part of the scope, the client needed; ten agents, five operators, platforms: all (PC and Mobile), infection vectors: all (local and remote), TNI (option), attack vector service (option), connector (Option).
Weinberg told his Hacking Team contact that his company was planning to submit a comprehensive offer to the customer in few days.
In response, Massimiliano Luppi also referred to as Max, the Key Account Manager at Hacking Team, asked Weinberg to process the end user statement signed by the customer in order to have the export authorisation.
Massimiliano also pushed Weinberg for evidence of the timeframe on this deal.
In a follow up email, Weinberg’s colleague, Dotan Peltz, a Director of Sales & Business Development, described the deal as “an African opportunity”.
“We are working to also meet the country political leaders during the same session; the process is being sponsored by the topmost level of the country,” he wrote, “This is expected within the next couple of weeks.”
With the Israel side of the deal gaining momentum, Hacking Team, also sought to raise its prices. The company sent the budgetary proposal according to Israeli company’s request together with all the documentation to be signed by the customer.
“As we informed you during our last meeting in Milan,” Max added, “we were in the process of reviewing our price policy, this new quotation reflects such changes.”
Inside Hacking Team, the Ugandan deal was part of an exciting new relationship with the Israelis.
The company was eyeing four deals—one with Denmark, another with an Israeli institution, another with Colombia and then Uganda.
“Uganda (a new one) this is 3M€+ worth of opportunity,” a Hacking team official wrote, “…Be sure I’ll be assisting to make it happen.”
If the deal goes through, as appears most likely for the Israeli representatives, they will be entitled to a 20% cut on the deal. However, they stand to get even more if they buy the technology from the Italians and resell it to Uganda.
The representatives of the Israeli intermediaries met the IGP Kayihura and his team of top security operatives in mid-May at an undisclosed location in Kampala.
The representatives also made contact with Amos Ngabirano, the head of Police’s Information Communication Technology (ICT) Directorate.
At those meetings, the representatives revealed that with this technology, it would take just sending a text or email to access a targeted person’s data on a mobile phone or computer, a source privy to the details of the meeting revealed to The Independent.
The Independent has learnt, Kayihura who was very impressed with the products on offer, promised to find the budget for the purchase although he had already compiled the police budget and had it approved by parliament.
Remember the police budget had been Shs316 billion and Kayihura had it increased by Shs100 billion to Shs412 billion. On top of this, the police would get an extra Shs200 billion for monitoring the 2016 elections.
For legislators, at the time, the intriguing question was why the police was increasing its classified expenditure 100% from Shs5.9 billion to Shs13 billion.
The Office of the President’s classified budget also expanded this year. Classified expenditure is usually spent on things like this hacking technology, which enforcement agencies deem important but cannot disclose to the public.
The Independent could not establish whether Kayihura, who sits on a discreet committee—the president’s committee on security—is the one that connected the Israelis to the President’s office.
But over the years, Kayihura has become the defacto intelligence chief to President Museveni mainly because he has been the most critical player in unearthing especially political activities of President Museveni’s potential competitors and relaying this intelligence. For instance, he exposed David Sejusa’s plans before the former coordinator of intelligence services escaped to exile and was also behind exposing former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi’s intentions to contest.
While he was able to pull off these feats that have cemented the President’s trust in him, it was with rudimentary technology and tools. For, instance by getting informants to directly follow targets and see what they are up to or have them record phone calls.
However, with the increased use of sophisticated, auto-encrypted VoIP communications like Skype, security agencies have found difficulty in retrieving targeted phone data and pinpointing locations.
But with this technology, all Kayihura needs to do is send out messages and listen in on conversations or access data from potential targets.
Previously, both Kayihura and agents at the office of the president have been involved in interception of information but mainly of phone calls. Uganda enacted the interception of communications act in 2010.
In 2012, spies in the president’s office connived with police agents to secretly record proceedings of evaluators of the $ 2 billion Karuma dam construction project bids.
Last year, tapes leaked exposing how the police chief had been secretly recording ruling party members about the alleged plot by Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi to challenge President Museveni. It turned out that Kayihura had also been recorded and was later exposed.
These leaked tapes followed revelations about how offices of top officials had been bugged.
Apart from this spate of bugging and recording, there has been an increase in the number of complaints of politicians that their emails and Face Book accounts are being hacked.
One of the victims was Mbabazi’s daughter, Nina Mbabazi, who claimed that unknown people had hacked into her Face Book account.
The Independent has also learnt that early this year, state house agents were deeply involved in a hunt for Tom Voltaire Okwalinga aka TVO.
It is apparently this hunt that led to the arrest and temporary detention of Robert Shaka on June.9 by Special Investigations Division detectives over using computers and other electronic devices, to issue offensive communications causing hatred and contempt and committing the offence of promotion of sectarianism.
Shaka was also accused of issuing offensive communication against Kayihura, President Museveni and Janet Museveni. Shaka was later released. It is not clear whether he was uncovered by a sample of this hacking technology, what is clear though is that with the technology, the authorities work chasing and accessing private date from the likes of Shaka and all potential political targets will be much easier.