Hacking Latin America: The Right to Privacy


Walking Times

At the beginning of July, the Italian company Hacking Team suffered a cyber-attack and 400GB of confidential information has since been published. In this leak, it was revealed that the National Police of Colombia had been in contact with the company and bought several of its products through another company called Robotec.

Where is the problem? Well, actually, Hacking team is a company that provides spying programs to access private data of national and foreign citizens.

Javier Pallero, analyst at Access, an international organization monitoring human rights subjects regarding new technologies, explains, “the software works like a Trojan, it can present itself under the form of a legitimate and inoffensive software to be executed and then take control of the device.” For the software to function, it is necessary to dispose of special servers where captured information is stored. In some cases, the servers are directly sold to government agencies. In others, those agencies rent space in storage centers anywhere in the world. Some sources highlighted that part of those servers are established in Mexico.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom Expression (OAS) points out that the software commercialized by HT “would be designed to evade computers or mobile phones’ encryption, allowing the gathering of information, messages, calls and emails, voice over IP and chat communication from everyday devices. This software can also remotely activate microphones and cameras.” It takes control over all the functions of the device and can explore the data it contains and transmit. The software is known as Remote Control System (RCS), although it was offered as “Galileo” or “Da Vinci2” to several countries.

Unfortunately, the emails released by Wikileaks incriminate many other States and/or intelligence agencies around the globe. It is possible to retrieve the e-mail released by Wikileaks through just a link.

Not far from Colombia, Ecuador is part of this list. The Andean country also brought software to Hacking Team. Mauricio Alarcon, project manager at the Ecuadorian NGO Fundamedios, stated that the government was suspected of spying on its citizens. “There are public cases such as Martha Roldos, whose e-mails were published as products of investigation by one of the media controlled by the government (El Telégrafo). The situation exploded when Wikileaks released the e-mails of the Hacking Team case, proving that there existed a relation between companies related to the group and the national intelligence agency of Ecuador”, he says. Several Ecuadorian media organizations, such as PlanV, Mil Hojas, GKillCity and La Republica, published content about the relationship between the Ecuadorian government and Hacking Team. Each of them was cyber-attacked a few hours after the publication. Those intrusions were so aggressive that they damaged the deep structure of their websites. To Alarcon, “the intention of the government to spy on citizens is clear (…) instead of protecting us and our rights, the government violate them. Most probably, in spite of the proof collected, the persons accountable will stay unpunished.” Meanwhile, the Intelligence Agency of Ecuador (Senain) has been denying those accusations through a public release.

The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights expressed its concern regarding “the important amount of information indicating that several governments of the hemisphere would have acquired and implemented surveillance programs for electronic communications which represents a serious prejudice for intimacy rights and freedom of thought and speech in the region.”

Earlier in 2014, the same group of hackers attacked the company Finfisher, famous for the production and sale of spyware similar to the ones provided by Hacking Team. Finfisher has been criticized by human rights organizations for selling these capabilities to repressive or non-democratic states known for monitoring and imprisoning political dissidents. Egyptian dissidents who ransacked the offices of Egypt’s secret police following the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reported that they discovered a contract with Gamma International for €287,000 for a license to run the FinFisher software. Also, in 2014, an American citizen sued the Ethiopian government for the surreptitious downloading of FinSpy on his computer, which was used to wiretap his private Skype calls and monitoring his entire family’s every use of the computer for a period of months.

This is not the first time that the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom Expression or other international organizations expressed their concern for the massive utilization of spying software by states. Although technology evolves quicker than regulation, some principles aiming to protect freedom and dignity from those programs exist. For example, the scandal generated by the United States’ NSA-snooping motivated the adoption of a resolution at the UN General Assembly on the “right to privacy in the digital age.” This resolution invites governments to respect human rights within the framework of new technologies and especially Internet. Will the international community take steps forward the fight against spyware proliferation? Considering how several developed countries are buyers, one might expect this process to be long and arduous.


Alex Chunet

Alex Chunet

Editor, International Crime at InPRA
Alex Chunetcompleted a Master in International Public Management at Sciences Po in 2016 and is currently enrolled in a one year post-graduate program at LSE in Local Economic Development.

He had the opportunity to work in diversified institutions from the international organisations sector (OECD, UNODC), public sector (French embassy in Buenos Aires), private sector (BSD Consulting), and the academic sector (J-Pal Poverty Action Lab).

Through those experiences, he managed to acquire significant knowledge and experience in the design and analysis of economic and social public policies in emerging economies.
Alex Chunet

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