Mass Surveillance in Latin America

What is the situation like in Latin America in regards to mass surveillance?

The ABC's main telephone switchboard at 69 Market Street (from 1932).

The ABC’s main telephone switchboard at 69 Market Street (from 1932). Source: ABC Archives

In a global scenario where mass surveillance has already been exposed, especially thanks to cases such as Edward Snowden’s, we know privacy is a fundamental right we must protect. What is the situation like in Latin America in regards to mass surveillance? Alan Lazalde takes a look at some examples that show that, on top of being tracked by the United States government, some Latin American governments also hire their own surveillance. At the same time, we are witnessing the spread of activist movements, tools and technologies that try to facilitate the right to privacy and anonymity.


In 1993, Eric Hughes wrote: “Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age (…) Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world”. So begins the Cypherpunk Manifesto, a text that depicts cryptography as a tool for resistance and freedom. These words remain valid more than twenty years later. And they also remain necessary.

When Julian Assange –recognised member of the cypherpunk community– took the world by storm with the first Wikileaks revelations in 2007, he triggered the spreading of topics that had until then been alien to mass media and their audiences. For instance, the word hacker was among the most used by the media –albeit with the usual negative connotations–. Topics such as anonymity and privacy became more frequent. In parallel to that, collectives like Anonymous and LulzSec helped raise awareness about the Internet’s deeper and darker layers, far from the Facebook and Google platforms –mass surveillance public machines, as Richard Stallman likes to call them.

With these predecessors in the media, Edward Snowden came into the picture: a young computer engineer and Buddhist believer who, in mid-2012, opened the door for The Guardian and The Washington Post to the most chilling files regarding mass government surveillance.

What Snowden showed the world was a worldwide surveillance network orchestrated by the United States, a complex network consisting of tools capable of analysing, in a matter of seconds, millions of personal data from social networks, telephone operators, emails and more. PRISM, as we now know, is the name of the technology created to that end.

The world changed thanks to the work of people like Assange, Manning and Snowden. On the one hand, because they make it evident that we live in a surveillance state, even more sophisticated than Orwell imagined. And, on the other hand, because their work made tools that facilitate the right to privacy and anonymity –the cypherpunk dream– all the more relevant, also giving visibility to non-governmental organisations that promote them. Tools such as TOR, for anonymous navigation, or technologies like Bitcoin and Blockchain, for the creation of decentralised and anonymous economies, are on the rise.

This is the global surveillance context in which countries in Latin America and worldwide find themselves.

What happens in Latin America?

For more than two decades, the United States government has tracked billions of phone calls being made from inside the country to another 116 countries. Naturally, this includes almost all Latin America.

But, if these efforts by the US government were not enough, some Latin American governments insist on surveying their own citizens from home. This was proved to be the case after the recent leaking of the customer list at Hacking Team, the Italian company that owes its reputation to the development of large scale surveillance software.

And thus the hunter became the prey. In July 2015, Wikileaks published over a million emails from Hacking Team, nearly 400 GB of confidential information including conversations with some of their clients, among them six in Latin American countries: Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico and Panama.

The Hacking Team software, referred to as “Da Vinci”, is capable of surveying from 1 to 100.000 people. By fairly simple means, it gets a hold of Whatsapp conversations, Skype and email. It can even record keyboard strikes and access a computer’s webcam remotely. These functions compete in effectiveness and scale with those of PRISM.

Renata Ávila, Guatemalan activist and one of the leading experts in the field, writes:

It is no longer possible to trust the devices we use to communicate. From phones to computers and intelligent chips, they have all been designed so that they can be subverted by intelligence agencies”.

And she adds:

Unlike in other regions of the world, the stories of surveillance trauma are still felt in Latin America, where almost half a million people went missing (during the military dictatorships of the 80s and 90s)”.

Investigators such as Paula Jaramillo, from the Chilean NGO Derechos Digitales, point out that:

Latin American governments are yet to understand that guaranteeing the right to privacy is a requisite for the development of other fundamental rights in a democratic state”.

Interestingly enough, some of Hacking Team’s clients also signed a United Nations General Assembly resolution that “condemns mass surveillance on the Internet and demands member states to revise their legislations and to have them respond to human rights standards”.

Despite a painful history of repression, persecution and missing people, our region does not show meaningful signs of being under way to eradicate mass surveillance against citizens. “Even though Snowden has shed some light on these [surveillance] practices, in Latin America we remain in the dark”, says Ramiro Álvarez Ugarte, from the Civil Rights Association in Argentina.

Let’s take a look at some specific cases.


Colombia is especially troubled among Latin American countries because of PUMA, a mass surveillance infrastructure. According to a report by the Fundación Karisma, PUMA is illegal because it belongs to the Dirección de Inteligencia Policial (Pol), whose efforts should have to do with intelligence, not interception.

What power does PUMA have? It can implement mass surveillance of 3G mobile data, and it can act in the main Internet lines to monitor voice and data communication in the whole of Colombia. The original report on surveillance in Colombia by Privacy International indicates that PUMA is used to spy on journalists, judges, politicians of the opposition and human rights activists.


Mexico is a frequent Hacking Team customer. The governments of at least seven provinces have hired their services, as well as six federal institutions, both military and related to public administration. It’s estimated that the sum of those contracts amounts to almost 6 million Euros.

In contradiction to this, the Mexican government also presides the Open Government Partnership, an initiative that gathers over 60 countries “to promote civic engagement, increase transparency, fight corruption and use technology as a tool for this opening-up”.

Article 7 of the Mexican Constitution is very clear:

The freedom to spread opinions, information and ideas by whatever medium is inviolable… No law or authority can establish prior censorship, neither can they influence freedom of expression”.

However, the last reform of the telecommunications law included policies to geolocalise cellphones   with no need for a judicial warrant. Given the country’s surveillance conditions, some Mexican activists have started launching platforms in favour of transparency, such as Mexicoleaks.

In 2015, Mexico held the ISS World Latin America, an exhibition for companies specialised in commercialising spying equipment for governments, which is the very same equipment used to spy on and persecute journalists, activists and human rights defenders. Hacking Team, by the way, was one of the event’s sponsors.


Although Argentina has only had a few conversations with Hacking Team, we are aware of the presence of Blue Coat, a key NSA contractor in the US that very recently bought spying equipment from Germany.

On the other hand, since 2011 the Argentinian government promotes a system called SIBIOS, whose aim is to keep a record of the faces and fingerprints of the entire national population. According to several activists, SIBIOS is “the greatest threat to individual liberties since the return of democracy, primarily because it is invasive to our privacy and because it violates the presumption of innocence principle”. According to other experts, such massive biometry is an attack to anonymity, privacy and data protection.

Some references

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a pioneering organisation in the defence of digital rights, both in legal and in technical terms. Their work, I think, has inspired the launch of specialised organisations in Latin America. These are some of them:

All those organisations have a very active participation in projects such as International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, an interesting initiative that promotes 13 surveillance principles that are compatible with human rights.

You can also find some leading voices on digital rights on Twitter:

Cryptography and freedom

The political discourse employed by governments focuses on opening up, transparency and many terms derived from the so-called Open Government. However, evidence shows that governors are surveying our communications in ways that keep getting more and more sophisticated.

The Cypherpunk Manifesto reads: “We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy out of their beneficence”. Perhaps, in an open society, in any part of the world, true privacy will only come through cryptography. This is a great opportunity for digital rights activist organisations to design educational strategies, partly civil and partly technical, which can bring their impact beyond the usual circles.

If 20 years ago the Internet was something almost exclusive to engineers, it is not difficult to imagine how the “cryptography” hidden behind the best tools and concepts could become part of our daily life. Maybe Bitcoin will become the first large-scale piece of technology of that nature.

So far, we know mass surveillance is a global reality. My suggestion is that we stay alert to our governments’ pulse and be ready to take care of our fundamental rights. I think we have –and will remain to have– many tools in our favour.

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Mass Surveillance in Latin America