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Apple, Proton and Wire encryption services help Spanish police identify activists

During an investigation into participants in the Catalan independence movement, Spanish police obtained information from encryption services Wire and Proton, which helped authorities identify an anonymous activist, according to court documents obtained by TechCrunch.

Earlier this year, Spanish police Guardia Civil issued a legal request to Swiss-based Wire and Proton through Swiss police. The National Guard requested any identifying information related to accounts on the two companies’ respective platforms. Wire responded with the email address used to register the Wire account, which was a Protonmail address. Proton responded providing a recovery email for the Protonmail account, which was an iCloud email address, documents show.

In a request that listed “organized crime” and “terrorism” as investigative, Spanish police wrote that they wanted to “identify who were the actual perpetrators of the 2019 street riots in Catalonia.”

Documents show that after the National Guard obtained iCloud email addresses, it requested the information from Apple, and Apple provided full names, two home addresses and a linked Gmail account.

TechCrunch is not revealing the activist’s full name because it’s unclear whether that person is actually behind the campaigns or whether they committed any crimes.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Encrypted online services are often designed to reduce the amount of user data they have access to by encrypting it with keys that only the user has, effectively preventing companies from handing over user data under a court order. Instead, police obtain metadata from the company, such as the user’s identifying information, including email addresses.

Spokespersons for Wire and Proton confirmed to TechCrunch that they had received legal requests from Swiss police and had complied with them.

“Following a formal and correct request from Swiss authorities, Wire provides basic account information about users. Wire is unable to view or disclose the content of any data transmitted through its services,” Wire spokesperson Hauke ​​Gierow told TechCrunch in an email.

Proton spokesman Edward Shone told TechCrunch, “Proton has very little user information, as evidenced by the fact that in this case, the data purportedly used to identify terrorism suspects was obtained from Apple.”

“Proton does not require a recovery address, but in this case the suspected terrorist added one himself. We cannot encrypt this data because we need to be able to send an email to that address if the suspected terrorist wishes to initiate the recovery process.” a Proton spokesperson said in an email. “Theoretically, Swiss authorities can request this information in cases of terrorism, a decision usually made by the Swiss Federal Office of Justice. Proton offers privacy by default, but not anonymity by default, as anonymity requires certain user actions to ensure proper action [operational security] Such as not adding your Apple account as an optional recovery method, which appears to be done by alleged terror suspects. “

Neither the National Guard nor the Spanish court investigating the case responded to TechCrunch’s requests for comment. A spokesman for the Swiss Federal Police said it was “not permitted to share any details with our partners regarding possible ongoing investigations and exchange of information.”

The legal request sent to Wire, Proton and Apple relates to a case in which Spanish authorities believe a pseudonymous member of the Catalan pro-independence movement Tsunami Democratic Party was working during the reign of King Felipe VI. Help the organization plan some kind of action or demonstration. Plans to visit the area in 2020.

“Explain what you want to do and I’ll tell you if it’s worth it, otherwise you’ll be wasting your time like you were at Camp Nou,” the activist, who goes by the pseudonym Xuxu Rondinaire, told another in a chat on Wire The chat was included in court documents, activists said.

According to Spanish authorities, Xuxu Rondinaire was referring to a botched protest involving drones that was supposed to take place during a 2019 football match between FC Barcelona, ​​whose stadium is called Camp Nou, and Real Madrid. Occurs during the game.

In these Wire chats, Xuxu Rondinaire “explained in detail” several elements of potential security protocols for “public figures,” a clear reference to King Felipe VI, according to court documents.

Xuxu Rodinelle’s case has been previously reported by Spanish and Catalan media.

Catalan newspapers national newspaper It was reported on April 23 that Spanish authorities believe that Xuxu Rondinaire is a police officer with the Catalan police Mossos d’Esquadra.

A spokesperson for Mossos d’Esquadra told TechCrunch that they had no information about the case and referred questions to the Civil Guard and the relevant Spanish courts.

TechCrunch contacted Xuxu Rondinaire via Wire, Protonmail email address, and iCloud email address but did not receive any response. We also contacted a mobile phone number listed in court documents linked to the home address where Xuxu Rondinaire allegedly lived, a number Apple provided to Spanish police.

When TechCrunch contacted the mobile number and asked if the user behind it was the person whose full name was identified in court documents, the person responded “no,” adding that they would report the message as spam.

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