BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Jan. 29, 2015–The Interception of Communication Act was introduced on Belize’s law books in 2010 and while it sets out a legal framework within which the Government of Belize can engage in wiretapping—and only via a court order requested by the Director of Public Prosecution in the process of police investigations—there is suspicion that the Government has been deploying wiretapping technologies to keep tabs on “persons of interest.”
Ret’d Colonel George Lovell , CEO in the Ministry of National Security, told Amandala, though, that the Government did not proceed with setting up the technology because the best bid, which they got from the Israeli company known as NICE Systems Ltd., was too costly for them.
We are reliably informed by another ranking official that the company wanted US$5 million to set up the technology for the Government of Belize and the framework would have allowed a “person of interest” to be tapped based on voice biometric data – which would have meant that the Government could monitor them no matter what phone number or device they chose to communicate on.
NICE, we were told, did visit the phone companies in the process of gathering information for its proposal, but the deal was never sealed with the Government of Belize.
Still, we were advised that the current directive to the phone companies is that they save all voice and data communications for a span of 6 months – not 2 years as had been initially proposed. This, we were told, is because the storage of those communication data requires a lot of space and a 2-year-span for storage would have proven to be too much of an expensive undertaking for the phone companies.
Anwar Barrow, the chairman of the executive committee of the state-owned Belize Telemedia Limited, the dominant telecommunications provider in Belize, rebutted allegations that the company had installed software used to give effect to wiretapping laws. He said that when the former administration of the People’s United Party was in office, there were physical lines run by the phone company via the Racoon Street Police Station to listen to people’s calls on landlines. At the time, no laws existed to regulate the interception of communications.
The recently introduced law says that the purpose of wiretapping, in the interest of national security, can include the protection of Belizeans from threats of sabotage, espionage, terrorist acts, terrorism, subversion by foreign interests and military or paramilitary invasion. However, the law also sets out penalties for unlawful wiretapping not approved by a court order.
A Wikileak cable detailing communications between former US Ambassador to Belize Robert Deiter and Prime Minister Dean Barrow, said that Barrow had “made a pitch for wireless intercept equipment for the Police Special Branch.”
Lovell said that the US never met that request and whatever project the Government of Belize undertakes would have to be financed from its own resources. Lovell, who also sits as a director on Belize Telemedia Limited, also told us that wiretapping has not come up at the company’s board meetings.
In fact, Lovell asserted that the law is structured in a way that protects citizens from illegal wiretapping, and it limits even persons like him from engaging in such activities. The penalties range from $25,000 to a few thousand dollars and the court can apply heftier sanctions for repeat infractions.
Lovell stresses that phone companies cannot release customer information without a court order and private citizens can sue for breaches if they can establish that they are victims of illegal wiretapping.
We were told that the Government began requiring phone companies to keep records for six months in light of what transpired in the murder investigation for Neisa Pipersburg in 2010. Investigators of that murder case realized that after two weeks, her communications data was no longer available to them.
We understand that the Government also explored getting help from Taiwan to establish the wiretapping framework; however, the Taiwanese, who we are told have a sophisticated automated system, also based on a legislative framework which requires a court order and which includes penalties for violations, could not, for national security purposes, have their system replicated for Belize.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow had said when the interception legislation was being brought into effect that if the Government ever acquires wiretapping equipment, it would tell the public.
In 2013, when allegations of corruption were brought against Belize Rural North area rep Edmund Castro by Alvorine Burgess, she had allegedly claimed that she had gone to the US Embassy where a staffer played her recordings of conversations she had had with Castro and another person.
However, when asked by 7News about the allegation of US wiretapping in Belize, Margaret Hawthorne, Chargé D’affaires at the US Embassy in Belize said, “As you know, I can’t comment on any intelligence activity that the United States may or may not engage in. So I really can’t address that question.”
The resurgence of interest in possible wiretapping in Belize comes amid a sensational wiretap probe in Panama, which has exposed spying operations allegedly led by former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, whose wiretapping request was also denied by the US before he turned to the Israelis.
Martinelli went to an Israeli company, MLM Protection Limited, and the extent of alleged breaches of personal violations is shocking.
International press reports say that one person complained of video surveillance being taken using their own personal devices through the state-sponsored surveillance scheme: “They can turn on the video (function) of your cellphone when it is resting on a table and can turn on the microphone to hear who you are meeting with. They use a technology that lets them take intimate scenes inside your bedroom,” one person alleged.
Another said that he had taken a photo of Martinelli and a mistress: “I sent (the photo) to him. He told me his people erased it from my phone,” the politician said.
For his part, Martinelli was not shy about his wide purpose for acquiring the wiretapping capabilities.
He told the US Ambassador there that apart from guarding against “ostensible national security threats,” he also wanted the equipment to monitor his political opponents.