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Prison phone scandal deepens

Nicosia central prison

The scandal of mobile phone use in the Nicosia prison deepened this week as the company tasked with upgrading the system to deactivate phones said it had inadvertently reconnected some instead.

Murdered inmates, suspended wardens, allegations of rampant drug and phone use, the director asking to be transferred, and a company seemingly incapable of blocking phone transmission as requested – the Nicosia prison has been plagued with scandals.

Meanwhile, efforts to block phone transmission to the prison often interferes or cuts entirely phone signals of nearby residents, with Politis reporting on Friday that even the nearby British high commission has complained to both the prison and the foreign ministry over the matter.

It is understood that the wider neighbourhood – and not just those in the prison – suffered phone interferences from Monday afternoon until Tuesday morning as part of the company’s trial run of the updated system.

But the Department of Electrical and Mechanical Services (EMS) on Friday offered its version of events, following harsh criticism in the media.

Notably, it stated that the company tasked with implementing the jamming system has been fined €100,000 over the delays.

The company won the contract in June 2018, which stipulated that the system go live by September of the same year.

However, a string of postponements led to the system being delivered in late October 2020. Meanwhile, just a few months later, the emergence of 5G technology made it obsolete.

The company has since been trying to update the system, albeit unsuccessfully.

The EMS cited licensing and procurement issues as the main reason for the delays.

Politis reported that the company’s efforts to update the system to block 5G instead made 3G and 4G networks available for some users in the prison.

 

The original contract was worth €1.2m but did not consider tech advancements (5G) and therefore the company requested a further €740,000 to upgrade the system.

The EMS on Friday said that it has informed the company that it was to test the system on December 16 but was told on December 15 that faulty equipment meant that the checks could not go ahead until December 23.

The EMS also sought to assuage concerns that the jamming system may lead to tracking members of the public, with the department stating that it does not record conversations or text messages. It further emphasised that it has not received any requests to upgrade the system for that purpose.

It was reported in July that during a February meeting Justice Minister Stefi Drakou had given verbal instructions to the prisons department to proceed with surveillance – not just jamming phones.

That meant upgrading the existing software’s capabilities, including the automatic activation of its surveillance system and the recording of a device’s unique code (IMEI), the sim card’s identity (IMSI), the date and time of a call and its geolocation.

A leaked letter, dated February 28, 2022, sent from the justice ministry to the prisons department reiterates the instructions in writing, reinforcing the idea that the ministry is bent on upgrading the software to include surveillance capabilities rather than jamming capabilities.

In March, the prisons’ directorate in a letter sent to the minister, expressed its reservations regarding the decision’s compatibility with the constitution and also pointed to the fact that surveillance activity requires a court warrant, that enabling such capabilities may threaten the data and privacy of individuals other than the convicts – especially those visiting, working or residing near the prisons, and also pointed out that the directorate may find itself criminally liable in the event of implementing such a decision.

“In essence, the prisons department directorate is being asked to take responsibility for the implementation of a measure that it considers illegal,” the letter said.

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