Why spy tools are booming in Latin America

The cyber-attack at Italian firm Hacking Team this year raised several fresh questions around the state of surveillance technologies and privacy. The firm was notorious for developing tracking and surveillance tools that were sold to governments, often dubious and repressive ones. In one earlier investigation, Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto found that the company sold tools to Ethiopia to spy on journalists.

The emails leaked from this year’s hack showed that the company was happy to travel to various trade shows to flaunt its wares and attract new clients. The growth of these surveillance trade shows is becoming a cause for concern, according to digital rights non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), especially in Latin America with a blooming business to be found in the import of spying tools and little legal oversight to curtail it.

The Intelligence Support System (ISS) World Latin America Trade Show, for example, took place in Mexico in late October over three days, billed as the “world’s largest gathering” of law enforcement in South and Central America. The event also sees industries like telecoms represented.

EFF expresses its concerns over trade events like this, stating that there is a lack of legislation in place across Latin America to prevent abuse of surveillance technology and international human rights standards are often ignored.

This technology is becoming more and more affordable and accessible, which is further cause for worry as there is growing evidence of government overreach into private data up and down South and Central America.

Several countries were wrapped up in the Hacking Team scandal, revealed through leaked emails. Officials from Paraguay, Ecuador, Honduras, Chile, Mexico, and Panama were all revealed to have correspondence or transactions with the controversial company. In 2014, emails showed, Chile paid US$2.85m on a surveillance contract with Hacking Team, the largest it ever received.

This summer Peru passed a new data retention decree that compels telecoms to store more data about its users, including location data, which can be accessed by police in certain cases. It was passed with little debate or public consultation, which was blasted as being “especially undemocratic” according to one NGO.

Elsewhere the US State Department has in the past been criticised for bankrolling surveillance equipment for the Mexican government by purchasing tools from Verint, an American company.

Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net, which examines the state of press and internet freedom in dozens of countries, has highlighted a number of flaws in Latin American countries. The likes of Brazil and Argentina score relatively well on the report but the organisation throws up a couple of red flags in certain regions.

Venezuela is listed as “partly free”. The country has some of the slowest internet speeds in LatAm, trailing only behind Cuba, but there is still an internet penetration of about 57% in the country, which has come under threat.

The government has introduced a number of laws over the past few years that limit internet freedom. Following widespread protests in early 2014, the government clamped down on dissent through website blockages and throttling internet lines.

In other cases there are laws designed to protect against crimes like kidnapping where, if compelled, telecoms, banks, and financial bodies must hand over data to aid an investigation. However, Freedom House notes that there is little oversight for these data collecting measures beyond the need for a warrant. “In practice, given the lack of judicial independence, there are few safeguards in place to limit government security agencies’ access to user data and private communications,” said its latest report.

The country has drafted laws that would further criminalize protest and organizing via social media. In 2014 alone, seven Venezuelans were imprisoned for posts made on Twitter.

These are only the cases that we’re aware of so far. More cases are becoming public on a frequent basis.

In 2014 it was revealed that the Uruguayan government purchased an online surveillance apparatus called El Guardián (The Guardian). This is part of a burgeoning trend where new age spying technologies are being used in conjunction with traditional methods, writes Fabrizio Scrollini of the London School of Economics and the chair of Uruguayan NGO, DATA.

“A human rights framework needs to be developed and shared among stakeholders to answer crucial questions about the governance of surveillance technologies in Latin American democracies,” he says.

With this alarm over surveillance technologies, there is growing opposition too. EFF reports on global changes in digital laws and internet freedom, regularly tracking laws and political action in countries like Peru and Mexico. Meanwhile Latin American civil society groups like Centro de Archivos y Acceso a la Información Pública have emerged as fierce critics of surveillance and censorship.

Brazil, the region’s biggest economy, has acted as a firm opponent against surveillance, largely due to outrage over the Snowden leaks, which showed that the US had spied on Brazil. President Dilma Rousseff was publicly livid, branding the moves as a “breach of international law” while the country went ahead with a new subsea internet cable to Portugal that avoided the US.

But this summer, Rousseff’s ire had died down a little bit. Following a meeting with Barack Obama that seemed to suggest an understanding had been reached, she was much friendlier towards her US counterparts. “It means we recognise the actions taken by the US… that friendly countries won’t be spied on,” she said. But what about the not-so friendly countries?



Further reading:

Internet freedom in decline, again

Latin America: Analysis of Freedom House’s Freedom of Internet Report, Part One

Latin America: Analysis of Freedom House’s Freedom of Internet Report, Part Two

Iran vs. The Internet

Web Freedom Across Africa


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Jonathan Keane

Jonathan Keane is a freelance journalist, living in Ireland, covering business and technology

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