If there’s one thing that the illegally wiretapped and broadcasted private phone call between Ricardo Hausmann and Lorenzo Mendoza proves is that the Bolivarian Republic is becoming a surveillance state. And this tendency is swiftly extending to the Internet.
We already know that the broadcast authority (CONATEL) not only blocks web pages but also collaborates with the domestic intelligence service (SEBIN) to monitor social networks and even imprison some of its users, like Inesita la Terrible, who has already been behind bars for over a year.
But what are the reached of this cyber-surveillance hegemony? Glad you asked.
Recently, Toronto-based CitizenLab released an investigative report on FinFisher, a quite special spyware program only available to governments for the purposes of fighting crime. But countries are using it instead to monitor its own citizens, regardless of whether they’re criminals or not.
The program uses malware hidden under legit software updates to enter targeted computers and then sends information back to a network of proxy servers. The list of clients includes several governments with questionable human rights records: Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia.
In Latin America, CitizenLab points at Mexico, Paraguay and Venezuela as the main regional users of FinFisher. But one of the article’s writers, Bill Marczak, told Alek Boyd (whose blog is still blocked in Venezuela) on Twitter that Venezuela use of FinFisher is actually substantial, as CitizenLab traced one “master server” allegedly functioning in the country.
But if our authorities are indeed using sophisticated spyware, it would not come as a surprise. Even so, they have also reached out to third-party specialized companies in order to ask them for their support.
Months ago, the name HackingTeam became more familiar to many: This internet security company had already built a dubious reputation of helping governments and corporations engaged in questionable activities, such as remotely entering private computers’ files, e-mails and Skype calls. But back in July, at least 400 gigabytes of internal emails were leaked online and published in sites like Wikileaks.
Did HackingTeam sell its services to the government? It seems like the answer is no, though not for lack of trying.
A delegation of the Italian company came to Caracas in March 2013, almost at the same time of the Comandante Supremo’s passing. They were supposed to meet members of several police and military organizations like the Criminal Investigations Police (CICPC) and Military Intelligence (DGIM).
Even if HackingTeam didn’t make a sale right away (matter of fact, their trip was more chaotic than expected), the State’s interest in hiring them hasn’t abated. Take Julio Duran. He was named as Information Technology Director of the Interior and Justice Ministry in May 2013. His previous job experience included both the national telecommunications company CANTV in the mid-nineties as well as heading up the failed CVG Telecom from 2005 to 2008. He was also involved in the Simón Bolivar satellite project.
Duran seems to have been really interested in HackingTeam’s services, to the point that he asked for a confidentiality agreement to be up and ready and for a live software demo in Berlin. Eventually, no deal was reached. Duran left his post the following year and now works as director of two private companies in Caracas.
The HackingTeam wasn’t the only project he left unfinished. Remember that old plan to put 30,000 Chinese-made surveillance cameras in our streets? That was actually his baby. And more than two years later, the so-called SIMA program is still somehow in early stages. Then again, it isn’t fully dead either.