May 25, 2007

Just Being Neighborly

Mexico is expanding its ability to tap telephone calls and e-mail using money from the U.S. government, a move that underlines how the country's conservative government is increasingly willing to cooperate with the United States on law enforcement.

The expansion comes as President Felipe Calderon is pushing to amend the Mexican Constitution to allow officials to tap phones without a judge's approval in some cases. Calderon argues that the government needs the authority to combat drug gangs, which have killed hundreds of people this year.

Mexican authorities for years have been able to wiretap most telephone conversations and tap into e-mail, but the new $3-million Communications Intercept System being installed by Mexico's Federal Investigative Agency will expand their reach.

The system will allow authorities to track cellphone users as they travel, according to contract specifications. It includes extensive storage capacity and will allow authorities to identify callers by voice. The system, scheduled to begin operation this month, was paid for by the U.S. State Department and sold by Verint Systems Inc., a politically well-connected firm based in Melville, N.Y., that specializes in electronic surveillance.

Although information about the system is publicly available, the matter has drawn little attention so far in the United States or Mexico. The modernization program is described in U.S. government documents, including the contract specifications, reviewed by The Times.

They suggest that Washington could have access to information derived from the surveillance. Officials of both governments declined to comment on that possibility.

"It is a government of Mexico operation funded by the U.S.," said Susan Pittman, of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Queries should be directed to the Mexican government, she said.

Anyone wishing to conduct such an inquiry would be well advised to leave contact information, travel itinerary, and names and addresses of next-of-kin, with the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City before proceeding.

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