HAVANA (AP) — Cuba's government said Wednesday it has launched a probe into how hundreds of thousands of customer cellphone numbers fell into the hands of a U.S. government program that used them to secretly set up a mobile-based, Twitter-like social network on the island.
An Associated Press investigation revealed last week that the U.S. Agency for International Development program used the data to build a subscriber base for the platform, dubbed ZunZuneo, with the idea that it could be used to stir unrest.
Cuba considers such USAID programs to be subversive attempts to topple its Communist-run government. Officials told reporters that state telecom Etecsa had not provided the data to any international operator or entity, and that the information was obtained illegally.
"An investigation is being held into how this may have gotten out," said Daniel Ramos, head of security operations for Etecsa. He did not give details on the probe's progress or any measures that may be taken.
Washington officials have defended the ZunZuneo program as consistent with U.S. law and described it as "discreet," rather than covert or classified. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-born Republican from Florida, called U.S.-led democracy efforts in Cuba "transparent" and "one of the most scrutinized programs in our foreign aid portfolio."
Ramos said Etecsa detected bulk messages being sent during the ZunZuneo project starting in September 2009 during a concert by Colombian singer Juanes, and again in early 2010.
The company complained to 200 foreign telecoms that had messaging agreements with Etecsa, and threatened to sever relationships if it continued.
Nonetheless ZunZuneo continued to operate until 2012 and built a base of tens of thousands of users before abruptly disappearing.
Etecsa had no idea the messages were anything other than unwanted spam, Ramos said.
It was only recently that "we learned this was more than an operator issue," he said.
The Caribbean country's government controls nearly all print, TV and radio outlets. Internet access is rare, restricted, slow and prohibitively expensive for most Cubans. Authorities say the country has little bandwidth to spare and must prioritize Internet access for use deemed in the public interest.
Some former ZunZuneo users have expressed indignation over the fact that they were kept in the dark about U.S. government involvement, but also complained that Cuba has not created anything like it to satisfy growing demand for access to social media and unfiltered information.
Ramos said the company is working on providing additional products for Cuban users, but would not go into detail.
"Our idea is that nobody has to invent a service for our users," Ramos said. "That the company can provide all possible services to avoid these kinds of things happening."
Etecsa runs all of Cuba's fixed-line and mobile telephone service, as well as Internet service.
Cellphone use has risen sharply since President Raul Castro ended restrictions in 2007, from around 400,000 active accounts back then to 1.8 million today, according to government statistics.
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP