Hacks and the hackers who hack them

The budget and scope of Maduro's surveillance operation is enough to make a convicted Colombian hacker, and the media that covers this story, blush.

Over the weekend, Venezuelan social media got its panties in a frenzied ruffle over a sexy exposé on political hacking and electronic surveillance. It’s too bad people picked the wrong exposé to get worked up about.

Our collective blood pressure shot up after Bloomberg ran a major investigation on Andrés Sepúlveda, an alleged political hacker who claims to have hacked his way across political campaigns up and down the length of Latin American, including Henrique Capriles Radonski’s 2013 Venezuelan presidential campaign, through plainly illegal electronic means. Sepulveda claims he was the black-ops guy behind fabled Venezuelan political consultant and J.J. Rendón. Rendón vehemently denies this, and has vowed to take legal action against Bloomberg for the story.

For the Venezuelan-minded, Sepúlveda’s misdeeds are minor league stuff: a limp-wristed, pathetically under-resourced version of what the big boys get up to. Bloomberg writes breathlessly of Sepúlveda’s $20,000/month “deluxe package” – but let’s get real, that’s probably the catering budget for Sebin’s electronic surveillance operation.

In its inaugural piece, Casto Ocando’s new investigative journalism site Vértice has the skinny on Venezuela’s own state-operated cybercrimes arm. It’s just a whole other scale: while the blogosphere hyperventilates over the army of Twitter-bots Sepúlveda operated, Venezuela’s political hacking machine is run by the people who give orders to the actual army. 

The first installment of a five-part report dives deep into how the Chávez and Maduro intelligence apparatus carries out illegal surveillance by hacking into email accounts, phone conversations and messaging apps, as well as monitoring social media in real time. Targets for these invasions of privacy include opposition politicians as well as dissenting members of chavismo considered dangerous to the regime. The outfit tasked with implementing this systematic electronic espionage is the Centro Estratégico de Seguridad y Protección de la Patria (Cesppa), a body created by Maduro in 2013.

According to Ocando’s investigation, the government’s intelligence machine employs dozens of hackers who work out of Miraflores, the Presidential Palace, using sophisticated software and malware to monitor communications and intercept massive amounts of data, which are later processed using an IBM-developed artificial intelligence engine called Watson. Conversations, chats, and personal details are then used to intimidate, defame and persecute political targets through the government’s vast network of public media outlets.

The Vértice piece details intercepted exchanges between opposition leaders such as Julio Borges, Henrique Capriles and Tomás Guanipa, as well as private data obtained from high-level chavistas like Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz and TV host Mario Silva. My favorite this-shouldn’t-surprise-me-but-it-does morsel describes how the late Hugo Chávez actually tried to buy $150 million worth of shares in an Israeli satellite surveillance company back in 2006, only to be blackballed by the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

Now, this might not seem like an earth-shattering discovery to you. This government sees “legality” the same way pigeons see a statue: as something worth shitting on with no regard for consequence. Chavismo doesn’t exactly go out of its way to hide that it routinely intercepts all kinds of communications that are technically private – just the opposite.

I know my own phone is hacked, and has been for several years now. The use of encryption software has become a part of my routine. Like power-outages or kidnappings, the fact that communications are intercepted is pretty much a given in Venezuela these days, and people go about their daily business one way or another all the same.

Yet, however used you may be to this reality, the fact is that some of the world’s most ardent critics of first world cybersurveillance continue to defend the Maduro regime. Somehow, the normalization of this kind of systematic violation of privacy is now so complete, that the world’s NSA-haters fail to see it.

I’m sorry, Glenn, but in some parallel universe, thrice removed from the Orwellian version of our new normal, this shit is unacceptable.

Emiliana Duarte

Emi is a cook, a lover of animals, politics, expletives, and Venezuela. She is the co-founder of Caracas Chronicles LLC and Managing Editor if the site until December 2017.