(Bloomberg) -- Switzerland’s federal data protection and information commissioner opened an investigation focusing on a company in which an executive allegedly operated a service that helped governments secretly monitor mobile phones.

Mitto AG is a provider of automated text messages that has counted Google, Twitter, and Microsoft’s LinkedIn among its many customers. But a Bloomberg News investigation, carried out in collaboration with the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, reported on Monday that the company’s co-founder and chief operating officer, Ilja Gorelik, was also providing another service: selling access to Mitto’s networks to secretly locate people via their mobile phones.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Swiss commissioner’s office said that it had opened a preliminary investigation into the matter. “As a first step, it will ask Mitto AG to comment and will also contact the mobile network operators in Switzerland,” the commissioner’s office said in a statement.

The Swiss commissioner, Adrian Lobsiger, supervises federal and private organizations in the country and can issue recommendations based on his investigations, according to the commissioner’s website.

A Mitto representative didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mitto was founded in 2013 and provides automated text messages for such things as sales promotions, appointment reminders and security codes needed to log in to online accounts. The closely held company, with headquarters in Zug, Switzerland, has grown its business by establishing relationships with telecom operators in more than 100 countries, giving it the ability to deliver text messages in bulk worldwide.

Mitto has attracted major technology giants as customers, including Google, Twitter, WhatsApp, Microsoft’s LinkedIn and messaging app Telegram, in addition to China’s TikTok, Tencent and Alibaba, according to Mitto documents and former employees. 

But between 2017 and 2018, Gorelik, the company’s co-founder, started giving surveillance-technology companies access to Mitto’s networks, which were then used by government customers to locate and track people via their mobile phones, Bloomberg News reported. 

Former Mitto employees familiar with Gorelik’s alleged activities said he provided surveillance services to multiple companies. That Mitto’s networks were also being used for surveillance work wasn’t shared with the company’s technology clients or the mobile operators Mitto works with to spread its text messages and other communications, according to former Mitto employees.

Mitto has previously said that it had no involvement in a surveillance business and launched an internal investigation “to determine if our technology and business has been compromised.” Mitto would “take corrective action if necessary,” according to Mitto. Gorelik didn’t respond to requests for comment.

François Charlet, a Swiss lawyer who specializes in privacy and technology issues, said conducting surveillance in favor of a foreign state while in Switzerland could violate that country’s criminal code.

The allegations about Gorelik and Mitto, he said, highlighted that “we need accountability of private companies as well as transparency from the authorities.”

A spokeswoman for Switzerland’s office of the attorney general, which has the authority to pursue criminal prosecutions in the country, said that office had “noted the media reports” about Mitto, but declined to comment further.


(Updates with additional details starting in fourth paragraph.)

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