In May 2021, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security launched a bidding process to contract a spying service. To begin with, as exposed by an article on the UOL web portal, the ministry was interested in buying the Pegasus surveillance software, considered by experts to be a veritable digital weapon of war. This system, developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, has been used by dozens of governments in different countries to hack the mobile phones of political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders. However, the company withdrew from the negotiations with the government after the repercussions in the media.

The bidding process continued and in July the company Harpia Tech won Electronic Auction 3/2021 staged by the ministry. From the outset, the auction was conspicuous because it was publicized without the participation of the bodies responsible for secret operations, namely GSI (Institutional Security Cabinet) and ABIN (Brazilian Intelligence Agency).

Since it was a process involving public funds that lacked transparency and posed a potential threat to democracy, five civil society organizations filed a complaint to the Federal Audit Court in May 2021 pointing out the problems with the auction.

Conectas, Igarapé Institute, Sou da Paz Institute, the Rede Liberdade network and Transparency International Brazil asked the Court for an immediate suspension of the auction and the contracting of the system on account of the many irregularities in the federal government’s bidding process: inadequacy of the bidding model chosen; overstepping of authority and violation of the principle of legality; and illegality of the item contracted with evidence of misuse of power, since the system will be used for surveillance and profiling without any judicial oversight, which is incompatible with the democratic rule of law.

In August 2021, after the winner of the bidding process was known and after the objections of the public bodies involved, the organizations once again reached out to the Federal Audit Court. According to the organizations, although NSO Group had already withdrawn, the main problem was the lack of transparency in the handling of this bidding process, preventing “the population from knowing the limits of exactly what is being contracted with public money”. In this regard, and again according to the petition, “we can see that the contracted solution, offered by the company Harpia Tech, is also potentially harmful to the public interest, which makes the investment of public funds in its purchase a highly questionable endeavor”.

The organizations went on to say that the Harpia tool is quite dangerous because “it can make use of data resulting from hacks, leaks and exploits, as well as virtual crimes” and because there are no control mechanisms planned to prevent potential abuse. Another point raised by the petitioners is that the possibility of making the service available to more than 200 public agencies, including the security forces, makes the potential damage even greater.

In November 2021, the Federal Audit Court unanimously decided to grant an injunction suspending the acquisition of the Harpia spyware system by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security. The injunction is valid until the court rules on the merits of the case, which will only take place after it hears from the company involved.

Technical information

  • Case: Representation No. 014.760/2021-5
  • Court: Federal Audit Court
  • Status: Pending 
  • Procedure:
    • 05/19 – Complaint of Senator Randolfe Rodrigues is filed
    • 05/27 – Complaint by civil society organizations is filed
    • 08/06 – New information provided by civil society organizations
    • 11/10 – Injunction granted