Allegations of surveillance abuse

By bogotapost September 11, 2015
Colombia Illegal Surveillance

Colombia has been controversially expanding its repertoire of digital surveillance capabilities.

Report says Colombian surveillance agencies have been ‘operating outside the law since 2005’

London-based watchdog Privacy International (PI) has released two reports claiming that Colombian surveillance agencies have been developing intelligence tools to collect large amounts of data without legal permission.

The first, entitled “Shadow State: Surveillance, Law and Order in Colombia” was published on August 31. Its companion, “Demand/Supply: Exposing the Surveillance Industry in Colombia” was released days later.

Based on confidential documents and witness testimonies, the first report alleges that Colombian authorities have illegally expanded their collection of internet and phone data, and questions the oversight of security agencies.

It points to inter-agency rivalries, which have resulted in “overlapping, unchecked systems of surveillance.”

PI highlights potential security vulnerabilities in the country’s most visible national surveillance system, Esperanza. Managed by the Attorney General’s office, and supported by the USA, agents are required to request intercepts on a case by case basis.

But beyond Esperanza, PI raises questions about other interception systems – namely the Plataforma Única de Monitoreo y Análisis (PUMA) that is operated by the Police Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Interpol, and the Integrated Record System (IRS), run by the Police Intelligence Directorate.

It alleges that both were set up without the knowledge of the service providers, and that the IRS is able to collect data indiscriminately from 100 million calls and 20 million text messages daily.

Colombian law states that citizens have the right to private communications and that surveillance may only be conducted with judicial permission and by the appropriate authorities. The authors state that the law is ‘ill-fitting’ to deal with this type of mass, passive surveillance.

The report concludes that “agencies are building their own surveillance systems, in the shadows, without sufficient scrutiny and without lawful basis”. The government has yet to release an official statement about the report or its allegations.

Matthew Rice, Advocacy Officer at Privacy International said, “Colombian citizens have for many years suffered from seeing their law enforcement and security services acting against principles of democracy and interfering with their right to privacy. Once again we have seen a key Colombian institution, the Directorate of Police Intelligence, shown to be operating outside the law since 2005.”

Colombia has a chequered history on surveillance related matters; in 2011, President Juan Manuel Santos disbanded the Administrative Security Department (DAS) after revelations that they spied on and harassed over 600 politicians and public figures.

Following this, efforts were put into place to reform surveillance measures – though the latest allegations may serve as a reminder that these reforms have not had the desired effect.

Mass surveillance is a controversial topic worldwide, and NGO Amnesty International has accused the UK government of being “one of the main culprits” of the phenomenon. In April, the organisation announced that it was taking the government to the EU Court of Human Rights over illegitimate mass surveillance practices.

By Laura Sharkey