Johannesburg - Intelligence operatives are scrambling to seize two “super-spy” surveillance machines that can access bank transactions and jam cellphone network signals.
The machines are believed to be in the hands of private citizens who obtained them illegally.
The search for the prohibited instruments, which are used only by security agencies, has lasted for several months, according to impeccable sources.
A source familiar with the investigation said the intelligence operatives have struggled to get information about the devices, known as “The Grabbers”.
“People who have The Grabbers really hide them because they know it’s illegal to have them. They also know criminals want to use them. They know they are risking being robbed by criminals or getting arrested,” the source said.
The disclosure comes a few weeks after the police confiscated a super-spy machine from three men who were arrested at Irene Village Mall in Centurion.
An intelligence agent who wanted to remain anonymous explained how it works and the risk it poses to people.
“It could’ve listened to conversations of the president and any minister without anyone knowing. It is more powerful than the ones used by the state,” said the agent.
A few weeks ago, Willie Lotter and two men were arrested after they were found in possession of the Grabber, worth R29 million.
The spying gadget, which was custom-made, can bug up to 10 000 cellphone lines live and locate any person. The powerful tool can also jam networks, download and intercept smses, send smses to any number, and detect other surveillance devices and block them.
State Security Agency spokes-man Brian Dube said it was working with other security agencies to investigate how private citizens managed to buy The Grabber.
The acquisition of the machine – a first-generation mobile GSM tracking and locating device – is highly regulated, internationally and in South Africa.
In this country, it belongs to a category of special equipment used in the interest of national security, and can be bought only with special presidential authority.
The device was bought using a fraudulently acquired letter of authority from the government and was paid for by money from a private trust owned by a businessman whose name is known to The Star.
Hawks spokesman Hangwani Mulaudzi was reluctant to give further details, saying the matter was very sensitive and that it was under investigation.
Mulaudzi said the Hawks were working with security agencies to establish how the machine was acquired by private citizens.
The Star understands that the machine was brought into the country in small pieces and then assembled by an Israeli company in Cape Town.
“This machine is big, it would have raised an alarm if it was assembled in Israel and brought into the country,” a source said.
According to an insider, Lotter and the businessman had travelled to Israel to buy the device.
It was manufactured and bought in Israel through a trust fund belonging to the local businessman.
The machine was installed in a Mercedes-Benz Viano. It is understood that the vehicle had travelled to several places in the country.
Lotter is due to appear in court again in October.
He and two suspects were arrested after they were lured to the Irene Village Mall in a police and intelligence sting operation.
The trio apparently believed they had found a buyer for the Grabber.
The other men were released due to insufficient evidence.
It understood that one of the men was a bank employee who was trained by the Israel company in Cape Town.
* For more revelations, get your launch copy of the African Independent on Friday.