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Encrypted services Apple, Proton and Wire helped Spanish police identify activist
May 9, 2024

Encrypted services Apple, Proton and Wire helped Spanish police identify activist

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Earlier this year, the Spanish police Guardia Civil sent legal requests through Swiss police to Wire and Proton, which are both based in Switzerland. The Guardia Civil requested any identifying information related to accounts on the two companies’ respective platforms. Wire responded providing the email address used to register the Wire account, which was a Protonmail address. Proton responded providing the recovery email for that Protonmail account, which was an iCloud email address, according to the documents.

In the request, which listed ‘organised crime’ and ‘terrorism’ as the nature of the investigation, Spanish police wrote that it wanted to ‘find out who were the perpetrators of the facts taking place in the street riots in Catalonia in 2019.’

Once the Guardia Civil obtained the iCloud email address, the documents show that it requested information from Apple, which in turn provided a full name, two home addresses and a linked Gmail account.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Encrypted online services typically aim to reduce the amount of user data they can access by encrypting it with keys that only the user has, effectively preventing the companies from handing over user data subject to a court order. Police instead tap companies for their metadata, such as identifiable information about the user, including email addresses.

‘Proton does not require a recovery address, but in this case the terror suspect added one on their own. We cannot encrypt this data as we need to be able to send an email to that address if the terror suspect wishes to initiate the recovery process,’ said Proton’s spokesperson in the email. ‘This information can in theory be requested by Swiss authorities in cases of terrorism, and this determination is generally made by the Swiss Federal Office of Justice. Proton provides privacy by default and not anonymity by default because anonymity requires certain user actions to ensure proper [operational security] such as not adding your Apple account as an optional recovery method, which it appears was done by the alleged terror suspect.’

The legal requests sent to Wire, Proton and Apple are related to a case where Spanish authorities believe that a pseudonymous member of the Catalan pro-independence movement Tsunami Democratic was helping the group plan some kind of actions or demonstrations at the time when King Felipe VI was planning to visit the region in 2020.

‘Explain what you want to do and I will tell you whether it’s worth it or you will waste time like at the Camp Nou,’ the activist, who goes by Xuxu Rondinaire, told another activist in a chat on Wire, which is included in the court documents.

According to the Spanish authorities, Xuxu Rondinaire was referring to a botched protest involving drones that was supposed to happen during the 2019 soccer game between F.C. Barcelona, whose stadium is called Camp Nou, and Real Madrid.

According to the court documents, in those Wire chats, Xuxu Rondinaire ‘explained in detail’ several elements of the potential security protocols of ‘a public figure,’ clearly referring to King Felipe VI.

The case of Xuxu Rodinaire was previously reported by Spanish and Catalan media.

Catalan newspaper El Nacional reported on April 23 that the Spanish authorities believe Xuxu Rondinaire is an officer of the Catalan police Mossos d’Esquadra.


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