Audit Court upholds veto on purchase of spy system by Bolsonaro government

The ruling prevents the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, responsible for the electronic auction, from entering into the contract with the company supplying the surveillance technology

Sede do Tribunal de Contas da União, em Brasília Sede do Tribunal de Contas da União, em Brasília

The Federal Audit Court decided on Wednesday, January 19, to uphold a ruling from November 2021 that suspends the acquisition of the Harpia spyware system by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security. The Court accepted the request to modify the previous ruling that was presented by the Attorney General’s Office, but it upheld the requirement for the surveillance system not to be used.

According to the court judges, although the contract with the surveillance company has been concluded, as the Attorney General’s Office alleges in its request, the federal government must avoid “signing any service order or making any payment until the Court rules on the merits of the matter under consideration”. No date has been set for the analysis of the merits.

In practice, the new decision streamlines the previous ruling and leaves no doubt that the Bolsonaro government is not authorized to use the system that won the controversial auction.

A look back at the case 

The case made it to the Federal Audit Court after the Public Prosecutor’s Office, Senator Randolfe Rodrigues and a number of civil society organizations submitted requests to halt Electronic Auction 3/2021, organized by the Ministry of Justice to contract spying services. To begin with, as exposed by a news article on the UOL web portal, the ministry wanted to buy the Pegasus surveillance software. 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. 

Illegal bidding process

Even after the withdrawal of the Israeli company, the complainants demonstrated to the Federal Audit Court that there were serious irregularities in the bidding process, including the illegality itself of contracting a system capable of monitoring and profiling citizens without any prior justification, the absence of control and oversight mechanisms and the actual type of bidding process adopted, which was entirely inadequate for the type of service to be acquired. As the bidding process went ahead with other companies, Harpia Tech was then chosen by the federal government to supply the surveillance services. 

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