El Chapo Guzman: The Sophisticated Technology The U.S. Uses To Spy On Individuals Like Him

El Chapo Guzman has recently made headlines after being recaptured following his daring escape from prison last year. Presently in his 60s, he had for more than a decade managed to stay away from jail since his first detention. This was through corruption, cunningness, and technology to ensure anonymity in his communications and generally stay under the radar.

Delving into his use of technology, he and his people used gadgets such as BlackBerry phones to communicate, as they have unique end-to-end encryption. And at one time last year, El Chapo was able to organize a meeting between him, Kate del Castillo, and Sean Penn through this method. However, a few more elaborate technological tricks were used. The following is an overview of the undertaking, according to a report by Schneier.

“Penn describes using ‘TracPhones,’ by which he likely means TracFones, which are cheap phones that take calling cards so they’re not linked to a credit card or account. They’re often called burners, but you don’t actually throw it in the trash after a call; instead you might swap out the SIM card or use different calling cards for different people… he ‘mirror[ed] through Blackphones,’ which are relatively expensive phones sold by Silent Circle that offer a more secure operating system than a typical off-the-shelf phone. It runs Internet through a VPN (to shield the user’s IP address and encrypt their Web traffic) and end-to-end encrypts calls and messages sent to other Blackphones.”

Sean Penn also apparently used shared anonymous email addresses and left drafts to communicate with El Chapo’s people. However, it recently became clear that this only gave El Chapo Guzman a false sense of security, as U.S. authorities could track this and access the communication history of TracPhones. Messages sent via BlackBerry Messenger were also easily monitored.

Looking at past evidence confirming the authorities’ ability to monitor communication via the said methods, former CIA director David Petraeus was busted a few years ago while communicating with his mistress through drafted emails. And about the BlackBerry Messaging service, authorities in Canada have had the ability to intercept them, as well, and were able to gather evidence against organized crime syndicates in 2014 this way.

Screenshot of live BBM chat [Image via BlackBerry.com
That said, new evidence seems to point to impressive technology being used by authorities in the United States to spy on unsuspecting citizens, and this is by using Cessna airplanes jammed with phone tapping technology. On how this works, the devices on the plane trick mobile phones into revealing their identity and location. Apparently, the planes feature a box that acts like a phone site that dupes mobile phones into thinking that it is one of the phone company’s relay towers. This is as reported by CNN.

A Cessna airplane on the beach, July 29, 2014 in Miami Beach, Florida. [Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]
Similar technology was used to pinpoint the location of Pablo Escobar in 1993, but Beechcraft planes were used instead. This is as reported by CNN.

In El Chapo’s case, the US and Mexican authorities were able to intercept his conversations with Kate, revealing some intimate messages. The following is the conversation between Kate, El Chapo Guzman and his lawyer, as reported by Slate.

El Chapo: “… we’ll drink tequila and champagne. I’m not a big drinker, but since your presence will be a beautiful thing, I’m very excited to meet you and become good friends. You’re the best in this world. … I’ll take care of everything so you’re comfortable. I will take care of you more than I do my own eyes.”

Del Castillo: “I am so moved to hear that you will take care of me. No one has ever taken care of me.”

Later that day, in messages between El Chapo and his lawyer:

Chapo: “What did she say?”

Lawyer: “Very excited. Surprised. She couldn’t believe it.”

Lawyer: “… she wants to bring along actor Sean Penn…. curious fact, he is the most renowned actor in Hollywood.”

An hour later…

El Chapo: “What’s the name of that actor again?”

Lawyer: “Sean Penn.”

Lawyer: “The guy in that 21 Grams movie.”

El Chapo: “21 Grams, what year was that?”

Sept. 26, 2015

[Photo by AP Photo/Marco Ugarte]