Numerous cyber attacks and hacking incidents invade privacy and freedom of speech in Venezuela and Latin America.
The latest internet-related scandal to hit Latin America involves revelations that the Hugo Chavez government hired an Argentine hacker, working in Spain, to install a communications network to monitor opposition leaders, journalists and individuals who may “pose a threat to the Bolivarian revolution.”
While concerning, it is important to mention that freedom of expression and other online privacy issues have become a major issue in Latin American, not just Venezuela but also in countries like Colombia and Mexico. Until some kind of multinational treaty establishes legal standards for the transfer of cyber technology, the future of e-privacy in Latin America looks grim.
In late July, Spanish security forces carried Operation Pitiusa, a raid in which 135 individuals were arrested. The goal of the operation was to crack down on individuals illegally collecting the personal data of Spanish citizens and then selling it.
What brought international attention to this situation was that the director of CF Labs, Matias Belivacqua, one of the individuals arrested, was allegedly employed by the Venezuelan government. Investigations carried out by the daily El Nuevo Herald showed that thousands of emails were intercepted by the Venezuelan intelligence agencies, as well as passwords and other personal information. Some of the alleged targets include Venezuelan opposition leaders like Antonio Ledezma, Osvaldo Alvarez Paz and Maria Corina Machado.
After the revelations came to light, a Venezuelan news website, LaPatilla.com, declared that it too suffered from cyber-attacks. The site’s editor, David Moran, stated that “the attacks occur when we cover incidents that are not favorable to the government, like during the recent incident at the prison in La Planta [in May].”
Caracas has come out to defend its relationship with Belivacqua and CF Labs. According to a report by the Spanish daily ABC, the Venezuelan government hired the Argentine citizen to build laboratories and provide technology to the Sistema Nacional de Gestion de Incidentes Telematicos VenCERT. According to its website, VenCERT’s objective is to detect and prevent cyber related crimes against government websites.
This is not the first internet-related incident in which the Chavez government is accused of utilizing the internet to violate privacy and access the personal data of anti-government individuals. In September 2011, a hacker group known as N#33 allegedly interfered with the Twitter and e-mail accounts of several prominent anti-Chavez figures.
According to Univision: “In the most remarkable case so far, N33 took control of the personal twitter account of journalist Berenice Gomez, known as the “La Bicha”. Her account, @Labichaoficial [suspended], had more than 190,000 followers. After stealing her email account, the hacker called, threatening to publish the entire contents of her account, including confidential sources and information.”
Another individual who was apparently attacked by the group was military analyst Rocio San Miguel, president of Control Ciudadano, a non-governmental organization that monitors defense and security issues in Venezuela. “The hacking is a plan of state terrorism,” she said in an interview.
N#33 declared that, while it took responsibility for the cyber-attacks, the operation was carried out on its own accord and not ordered by the Venezuelan government. To justify its operation, the group argued that it was to halt the “unnecessary [indebido]” use of Twitter by individuals who are against the government under the pretext of freedom of expression.
Whether the Chavez regime has violated the e-privacy of its citizens or not, it is important to highlight that other regional countries have been accused of similar incidents or of trying to pass legislation that could potentially restrict the online freedom of their citizens.
In mid-July, the Mexican government signed the controversial internet bill known as ACTA, which theoretically is supposed to fight online piracy and protect copyright material, but has been widely critiqued as a curtain for allowing government-sponsored online censorship. Colombia has also debated such polemic laws; in late 2011, Colombian legislators drafted a law called Ley Lleras, which also corresponds with anti-piracy and copyright issues. But the Colombian government bit more than it could chew as the international hacking group known as Anonymous hacked the website of the Colombian ministry of interior in protest, among other official websites, in April 2011.
Without a doubt, the debate over online freedom of expression will continue and we can expect more attempts at passing controversial laws like ACTA and Ley Lleras by certain states. But even more worrisome is that governments around the world today have access to high-tech spyware software to spy on its citizens. For instance, the controversial spyware known as FinFisher, produced by the UK-based Gamma group, has been utilized by the government of Bahrain to help crack down on protesters in that Arab state. Could software like this find its way to Latin America?
Whether it is governments utilizing spyware on their citizens or resorting to approving controversial laws that could promote online censorship, the lack of international treaties regulating the internet leaves too much open room for corrupt governments and officials, at any level, to abuse their power and crack down on free e-speech.