Phone tapping, data theft, and secret recordings have made headlines across Latin America in recent weeks, reflecting the growth of cyber crime and information trafficking in the region, as Southern Pulse explains.
Domestic spying is in the news this month in the Western Hemisphere. A subject that is often not discussed in formal settings has made its way to the front pages of at least a dozen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean over the past few weeks. The news includes phone taps, hacked emails, covert video surveillance and legislative debates over privacy online and offline. A confluence of events around the region and the globe as well as improved spying technology has pushed this trend into the open and could change how the spy vs spy, police vs crime and government vs opposition scenarios play out in several countries.
Certainly, there have been phone taps and secret recordings for decades in Latin America. Perhaps the most famous examples were the “Vlad-videos” in Peru under the administration of President Fujimori and National Intelligence Service chief Montesinos. What makes 2011 different is the surge in surveillance by governments across the political spectrum and the media providing increased coverage of the situation.
The technology and techniques are a mixture of old and new. Phone taps and illegal recordings are old technologies that have become more sophisticated while data mining of social networks is a new field that all governments around the globe are just beginning to understand. Private hacking gangs appear to have surpassed the capabilities of government intelligence agencies in terms of the ability to hack email and computers, creating a new black market for information trafficking.
It’s worth noting that the technology to encrypt data has also become cheaper and easier to use, but has not yet caught on in much of Latin America. However, the increased public nature of government and private sector surveillance should push an increased demand for privacy technologies in the coming year, both by criminal groups and civilians who want greater privacy from the government.
Some examples from recent weeks follow:
A New York Times article described enhanced intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico that includes phone tapping technologies. The U.S. has assisted in the creation of intelligence fusion cells in Mexico and is providing information to a vetted group of Mexican authorities so that they can conduct operations against criminal organizations.
In Honduras, an investigation revealed that the email servers at the presidential palace had been hacked, giving one or multiple organizations access to email, the president's schedule and budget documents. Foreign government involvement does appear likely at this point. An Israeli firm has been hired by the government to provide increased cybersecurity protection.
Even as officials from the government of former President Uribe are being investigated for phone taps and domestic spying on judges and political opponents, the Colombian government showed off some new surveillance capabilities. Police utilized new online forensic capabilities and arrested a hacker who broke into the account of a journalist. The government, under attack by a local branch of the hacking group Anonymous, has announced they plan to have a new CERT agency online before the end of the year that can counter and investigate attacks.
In Venezuela, phone calls by opposition candidates have been recorded and played on state television as a way of embarrassing those politicians. It appears state intelligence is behind the tapping of the phones. This news comes just months after other sources indicated that Venezuela’s intelligence services, with the assistance of Cuban intelligence and private hacking groups inside Venezuela and Colombia, have hacked into the private email accounts of journalists and politicians and have stolen their messages for at least the past five years.
In Bolivia, the government tapped the phones of indigenous protesters and U.S. embassy officials. President Morales then revealed phone calls made between the two groups as a way of showing a plot against his government. In the process, he showed that his government is tapping the phones of political opponents and foreigners living in the country.
In Argentina, a number of private emails by Kirchner government officials recently appeared on a website “Leakymails.” There are three aspects to this scandal worth considering. First, the content of the emails contains personal information about key political officials. Though most of the emails released are rather boring, one set of emails does appear to link a government-backed candidate to organized crime. Second, the question of how the emails were obtained may point to the state intelligence service or former officials within the intelligence service committing domestic espionage. There are indications outside non-state groups hacking into government officials’ email account. Third, an Argentine judge ordered local ISPs to block the Leakymails websites. This opens a new chapter in web censorship in Argentina and the region and places the question of how private ISPs filter Internet content directly onto the policy agenda.
The government of Brazil fined Google for failing to reveal identifying information about an Internet user. According to Google, Brazil is the top country in the world for making requests to obtain user information or to block search results through legal actions. Part of this is due to Brazil’s speech laws that give public officials broad sway on any issue that could be considered libel or slander.
Similarly, the government of Ecuador is considering passing a law that would require Facebook and Twitter to provide information about anonymous postings based out of that country. Though President Correa has backtracked on his initial request, draft versions of the law suggest an expanded government authority to track the identity of users online.
The governments of Chile and Brazil have said they are starting to monitor social media sites as a way of detecting criminal activity as well as potential social unrest. For Brazil, this operation has included a military unit dedicated to cyberwarfare and cyberdefense. This unit is also receiving training from Israeli and U.S. firms in offensive operations in the cyber-domain, the first Latin American government to admit that publicly. For Chile, the monitoring of social media has made the government a target for the international hacking group Anonymous, which is also attacking government websites as a way of supporting recent protests by student groups. Chile’s domestic cybersecurity units, particularly those within the police, are now forced to increase their capacity to handle the incidents.
The issues reported only hint at some of the issues that remain hidden from public view. Police and intelligence organizations across the region have expanded their capacity for surveillance in recent years and a number of foreign firms from the U.S., Europe and Israel are assisting them in that effort. Meanwhile, criminal groups have banded together with hackers from Eastern Europe and Russia to enhance their technological capabilities to steal government and corporate information.
Back at the regional level, Latin American intelligence agencies are running into the same problem as their developed world counterparts: how do they analyze all the data they collect? The ability to collect and store data is moving more quickly than the ability to process, analyze and utilize it. For Presidents Chavez and Morales, who have very specific political targets for their intelligence collection campaigns, this has not been much of a problem. However, for Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, whose intelligence efforts do focus on organized crime (in spite of some high profile scandals in which they don’t), they cannot keep up with the data in a timely fashion. All three countries are known to have missed arrest opportunities in which they had data about a relevant target but did not filter it out of their mounds of data quickly enough to operationalize it.
Lurking among all of these government-related surveillance and privacy issues is an increase in private sector and corporate espionage in the region. Much less reported, companies have had gigabytes of data stolen by local private hacking groups and foreign governments from Eastern Europe and East Asia. In various surveys, over half of corporations in the region report being victim of cyberattacks and theft of data. These corporations, when they manage to detect the problem, generally do not report the problems to the governments. While it is apparent from the above examples that governments have plenty of surveillance issues on their plate, this private sector surveillance challenge cannot be ignored. The threat that some corporations and criminal groups may surpass local police and intelligence agencies in their surveillance and spying capabilities can be a problem for the future security of these states and the civil rights of their populations.