Thursday, February 23, 2012

More on USAID's m.o.: the SIM card (Updated)

Ernesto Hernandez Busto at Penultimos Dias takes a long look at one of the most interesting nuggets in the Associated Press story about USAID contractor Alan Gross’ modus operandi in Cuba: the fact that he reportedly used a special SIM card available only to government agencies to make his satellite Internet installations less susceptible to detection by Cuban authorities.

This, Ernesto notes, is important because it opens the door to the argument that Gross was engaged in espionage or linked to intelligence agencies. 

Gross was not charged with espionage nor did the the Cuban court link him to intelligence activities.  The court’s sentencia only mentions SIM cards in the very long list of Gross’ seized equipment and accessories that have been duly passed on to Cuba’s communications ministry: three BGANS satellite gizmos with their SIM cards, 13 Blackberries with their SIM cards, and a plastic bag with five SIM cards for telephones.

Nonetheless, Ernesto raises interesting questions about the SIM card issue and has consulted an unnamed expert (whose comments he quotes in English) who doubts the veracity of the AP story regarding the SIM card.  Ernesto also cites AP reporter Desmond Butler standing by his story. 

Considering that Gross’ trial is ended, Cuba knew what he was doing, and USAID insists that there is nothing covert or classified about its operations, I think more information would be helpful here.  USAID’s m.o. is a subject of legitimate public policy debate, of interest to both fans and skeptics of USAID’s activities.  It is strange for the U.S. government to allow it to proceed with abundant information provided by Cuba, some leaked information reported by AP, and only bland generalities from USAID. 

Ernesto’s questions deserve answers, as do others.  Such as whether USAID has a policy about its operatives using private American citizens and organizations as cover, without informing them, for activities that could land them in the same trouble in which Mr. Gross finds himself now. 

On a related note, this article in the Forward suggests that one of the groups that Gross enlisted to carry some of his equipment was the Jewish Federation of Broward County.

Update: A reader sent in the following:

In his attack on the reporting of Desmond Butler of the AP, Ernesto Hernandez Busto argues that the BGANs Gross was deploying were perfectly ordinary, and quotes an anonymous expert who says that only a special cell phone using a military network would have the capability Butler described, and it’s not plausible that Gross had access to such highly classified technology.

This expert is just wrong. There is such a thing as a discrete SIM card that has exactly the capabilities Butler described. It has nothing to do with cell phones or military satellite networks. It fits a regular BGAN terminal, and appears to only be available to government purchasers. See this description (esp. slides 16-18) of how it works in a sales presentation prepared for government agencies. This special SIM card stops the BGAN from reporting its GPS location to the satellite; instead, it reports the location within a 100-300 kilometer radius.   

Hernandez Busto also claims that all Gross was doing was creating a “BGAN Private Network” as described here, but in fact that is something completely different, as a careful reading of the linked page makes clear.

Note the February 20 comment on Penultimos Dias from “anonimo,” who seems to know what he’s talking about:

Los BGANs, cuando se usan, reportan su posición GPS al satélite. Todas las transmisiones de BGANS al satelite y de vuelta son codificadas.
Pero el Pentagono, para estar más seguro aún de que las posiciones físicas de sus unidades que usan BGANs no pueden ser interceptadas y delatadas, hace varios años empezó a usar SIMs “discretos” porque no transmiten las posiciones GPS. Es decir, aunque se lograra interceptar y decodificar una señal BGAN, no se podría saber la posición del aparato.
Ya casi no se usan los SIMs discretos porque al no recibir las posiciones GPS, el satélite no sabe de dónde viene lo que esta recibiendo y no puede ajustar el poder de sus trasmisiones. (Si el satelite sabe que está recibiendo data de posición X, donde sabe que su cono de transmision es débil, puede maniobrar para aumentar el poder de su transmisión.)
El uso de SIM discretas esta muy pero muy restringido a militares, servicio secreto, etc.
Que le hubieran entregado una a Alan Gross, quien se supone es sólo un subcontractor de USAID, sería muy extraño.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

unnamed expert -- an oxymoron, like army intelligence. believe the person who puts his name of what he has written, and not the one who says things with no accountability
(and yes, i know the irony of now signing this anonymous.