Italian Bodyguard Held by Mauritania in Hacking Deal Freed

  • Prisoner was unwitting participant in bizarre hostage swap
  • Case shows danger of underground global cyber-weapons trade

An Italian bodyguard who was held by the government of Mauritania for nearly two years has been freed, according to the man’s family and lawyer. He had been a hostage in a bizarre multinational cyber-weapons deal that went bust.

Cristian Provvisionato, one of the subjects of a Bloomberg Businessweek feature in January, was released Friday by Mauritanian authorities and was flying back to Italy, said his brother and girlfriend.

"We’ve been informed by the Italian consulate in Nouakchott that our client
is already in an airplane” on his way to Italy, Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Lematt,
one of his lawyers, said by phone. Provvisionato had been on a hunger strike since May 5 and his health was deteriorating, according to Ould Lematt. He was handed to Vincenzo Amendola, Italy’s under secretary of state for foreign affairs, who had arrived on Wednesday in Nouakchott for meetings with Mauritanian officials about the matter, the lawyer said.

Provvisionato had been detained since September 2015 after a $2.5 million deal for mobile phone hacking tools between an adviser to Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and a company called Wolf Intelligence collapsed.

Wolf Intelligence, a broker of computer exploits run by an Indian national named Manish Kumar, was paid $1.5 million for software and services but failed to deliver the central technology, an exploit for hacking smartphones via text messages.

Provvisionato was the last man standing in an elaborate hostage swap he didn’t know he was a part of, and is a symbol for how dangerous the underground international trade in high-level computer exploits has become.

Provvisionato was working as a bodyguard for a Milan-based subcontractor for Wolf Intelligence, when he was sent to Mauritania with the assignment of accompanying a technician on a sales demonstration for the government. What he didn’t know that the Mauritanian government was keeping a representative for Wolf Intelligence in the country as collateral until the exploit was delivered. Kumar, in a series of interviews, said he and his close associates had been detained before he engaged the subcontractor, and that he was still trying to secure the hacking tool when Provvisionato was arrested.

"I’m going to Rome! Cristian will arrive in Rome this evening!" Provvisionato’s girlfriend, Alessandra Gullo, wrote in an email Friday.

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