In the specifications for the so-called catchers of the Ministry of Finance it is explicitly written that they need to intercept phones, functioning only in UMTS mode. Such systems, however, are not available on the market.
Along with “Tsvetanov Gate,” the “catchers,” called in folklore “Tsetso Mobiles,” also became famous. These are vehicles fitted with equipment for tactical interception of cell phone conversations, bought with money from Schengen in 2010 (the exact name of the public tedner is: Supply of Specialized Equipment for Electronic Monitoring, Eavesdropping and Surveillance – Project under GIP 2008 of the Instrument Schengen, Objective 2, Action 2, Activity 3). The value of the tender is 1.44 million levs, from which 1.37 million levs have been actually paid. The real cost of the equipment, however, is much lower; moreover, it does not comply with the requirement of the tender to supply documentation in Bulgarian, an investigation of Bivol showed.
Chief Prosecutor Tsatsarov said in an interview on bTV, in the political talk show “Face to Face” that the catchers tapped illegally 875 phone numbers. After the wiretap scandal broke, the prosecution seized the catchers and requested assistance from British justice for the recovery of memory erased by an employee of the Interior Ministry’s Technical Directorate, SDOTO.
“The court order is still ongoing. Meanwhile, you know, it’s not a much of a big secret that on October 30, an English expert from the manufacturer company was in Bulgaria, who, in some way, might help our expert actions. Whether it happens, we are yet to find out. In reality, however, we are awaiting the response of the British authorities. The court order was once returned and was submitted again with explicit confirmation that the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office has no accusations whatsoever against employees of the manufacturer of the equipment,” said the Chief Prosecutor.
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The manufacturer of the equipment is MMI Research Product UK (www.mmiresearch.co.uk), a subsidiary of Cobham (www.cobham.com). The reason for the long wait for information and expert advice from the UK is that the supplier “Lomini” Ltd has not provided any service or technical documentation for the equipment, Bivol learned from sources close to the investigation.
The Ministry of Interior Ordered Nonexistent Catcher
As evidenced by the tender, published in Capital daily, the contract is for a system capable of tracking phones operating exclusively in the 3G network and there were no exceptions for this. “The localization of cell phones, running in 3G mode, should be carried out without changing their mode of operation,” is explicitly written in section 6 of the tender (see attached file).
Such a system, however, was not available on the market in 2009, and is not currently available as commercial product, Bivol’s investigation established. “Many services around the world would be happy to buy a system that is able to efficiently locate and eavesdrop on phones set to work exclusively in 3G mode,” believes the site administrator of buggedplanet.info, which is one of the most authoritative open sources on issues of electronic security.
A presentation on Cobham systems for tactical interception can be found in documents leaked to Wikileaks. The most perfect catchers of the company manage to force phones running on 3G (UMTS), to go down to 2.5 G (GSM) mode, but they cost in the range of 2-3 million euros, significantly more than the budget of the Ministry.
So it turns out that in 2009, the equipment ordered by the Interior Ministry did not yet exist, and money was not enough for the best existing one. Ultimately, the supplier “Lomini”, which won the tender, purchased and delivered a simple 2G system (GSM), which, however, seems times cheaper than the allocated budget of 1.44 million levs. The tender was approved by the Ministry of Finance and by the Ministry of Interior, although the equipment did not meet the set specifications, while service and technical documentation were completely missing. The difference of a few hundred thousand levs in European taxpayers’ money disappeared somewhere.
From “Lomini”, which is owned by former SDOTO employee, Hristo Stoyanov, refused to answer the request of Bivol, asking what precise equipment was delivered and at what cost, citing confidentiality clauses in the contract with the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Finance. Our inquiry to Cobham also remained unanswered.
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