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.

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  1. Emiliana, great piece!
    Agree with you that the Bloomberg story pales in comparison to the bombshell report from Casto Ocando. SEBIN has way more reach than JJ (and more to lose too).

    Would love to see the rebuttal from Glenn Greenwald…..haha

    Was looking forward to CC’s angle on all these hacking investigations…this was perfect. thanks!

    • also, I dont think they are actually using IBM’s Watson or any sort of artificial intelligence to consume and analyze BBM or phone intercepts. SEBIN is probably using massive storage and dedicated monitoring for high profiles (there aren’t that many of them)

        • I’d like to think they’re not as smart.
          analyzing data from selected targets can be done with a lot of people skimming the data.
          Extracting valuable (read “anti imperialista”) information from huge datasets (such as all CANTV internet traffic for example) is too expensive and can only be done via Artificial Intelligence (such as Watson) that is not commercially available.

          IBMs Watson is sold alongside professional services/consultants. Would require years of consulting to implement the “Eye in the sky” model to extract the infomration they’re looking for.

          Its easier to just read MCM, HCR, JB, and other high members of the OPO

          • Well, that’s a bit comforting to know haha. But still, these folks are ruthless; and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Chinese or the Russians have developed a Watson-like on their own.

        • Definitely that about Watson is not correct.
          Monitor hubs from where messages depart? Definitely, like the Iranian regime does but most likely with Huawei technology and similar

          • It has been documented the usage of Blue Coat PacketShaper for internet surveillance in Venezuela.
            I don’t know what they use for phone tapping.

  2. “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.”

    Excellent post! How is it that IBM software (Watson) is allowed to be used in this Orwellian manner? Who sold it to them, and did they know the purpose? Are we providing our own rope? A few years back Siemens (Germany) sold Iran some very sophisticated communication monitoring equipment. The Iranian opposition was outraged. It’s still in place today. The “world’s NSA-haters” should indeed take note of the REAL threats to their freedoms, or we will lose them all.

    • Thanks! I hope the second installment of the series will go deeper into Watson and the implications of IBM licensing software to authoritarian regimes.

    • Business is business. The chinese today own half of the computer distribution and VAD/VAR channel in Latin America through their aquisition of IngramMicro. Look at who Ingram owns in Brasil. The use of Western commercial off the shelf tech by authoritarian regimes is nothing new but the DoD embargo will play a role on end-use and user activities.

  3. Long time ago worked in a company which sometimes would intercept employee communications , once they were so clumsy that you could hear them speak as they intercepted your call (giving the whole game away) , in time it becomes a kind of game , I used to invent information which I knew would be of interest to those I suspected of ordering the intercepts , then a few days later someone would ask me indirectly about something which assummed the invented information was real , allowing me to know exactly who was behind the intercept , you could plant information just to make people run like headless chickens in search of something that really didn’t exist . great fun ….!! Had to warn my underlings to watch out and never speak ill of the bosses in their private phone calls , Once had one of my bosses (quite incensed) ask me to fire one of my underlings who was caught repeating was repeating wicked gossip about one of his chums over the phone ……I made up I was as angry as he was and would severely reprimand my underling , then had a quiet talk with the latter to be more careful about what she spoke over the phone….

    If people know their conversations are being intercepted then they can play games with those listening , have them follow false leads , or even say very insulting things about the party ordering the intercepts without their being able to reveal their offense at what is said of them..

    Conversations have to be made only in safe places or be codified in a clever way so that no one really knows that is being talked about !!…………The Venezuelan love of gossip can help you create dissent and distrust between those who form part of the group of people having access to the intercept….

  4. Friends of mine working in electronics told me the regime was using, among other stuff,
    Chinese hardware.

    In 2011 a Dutch journalist published a book where he quotes, among others, Rojas Müller, who proudly boasted about how the Cubans were helping them.

    Many years ago I also posted about how some Venezuelans were studying in Minsk at the academy where the KGB people go (yes, in Belarus it is still called KGB).

    Undoubtedly, they also knocked at the door of the Russians.

    The really amazing thing, as Emiliana says, is the shamelessness in which Chavistas talk about how they just spy on anyone without the slightest care for law, without even pretending they care.

    I really advise any Venezuelan trying to explain it al to people in democratic countries to simply show them some videos where Diosdado Cabello or Mario Silva play illegally recorded conversations and the like and joke about it. We might have got used to that but people abroad would certainly be disgusted by Chavismo.

    • “…people abroad would certainly be disgusted by Chavismo.”

      Except, the extreme leftists, who would giggle at such displays of “revenge against the filthy anglosaxon blond blue-eyed right”

  5. In pointing out an apparent double standard between the gringos’ policy on Saudi Arabia and on Venezuela, Greenwald misses his own double standard on surveillance issues (also a human rights issue). Oops.

    He raises the interesting question of why the double standard, though. He attributes it to an ideological bias. He offers no evidence for that. He assumes because Venezuela is coloured red, that is why it is deemed a threat to the USA (as distinct from Saudi Arabia, which is not).

    I think there are obvious explanations for the gringos’ double standard viz a viz Saudi Arabia and Venezuelan human rights abuses which have nothing to do with ideology. Beginning with the fact that Saudi Arabia is an ally in the middle east where the USA is waging a whole bunch of wars or proxy wars.

    Are the gringos really more concerned about Nicolas Maduro and his CIA-Uribe-MUD axis of evil, as opposed to radical Saudi clerics advocating death to Israel and beheading women suspected of cheating or thinking about cheating? I don’t think so. I think the gringos probably worry a lot about Saudi Arabia and say little publicly, and I think they worry a lot less about Venezuela, and say more publicly for political purposes, but have basically taken the position of letting nature run its course in Venezuela.

    An interesting thought experiment is to imagine the NSA has all the internal regime communications in Venezuela covered, and how that might influence their policy choices.

    The abuse of private communications in Venezuela is outrageous and yes, Orwellian.

  6. “This government sees “legality” the same way pigeons see a statue: as something worth shitting on with no regard for consequence.”


  7. Interesting.
    Internet mass surveillance has been carried out in Venezuela since 2011, and phone communications have been commonly wiretapped since 2008.
    I’m not sure how accurate is this description of the process. But, it is going to be fun to see what they do now.

  8. Don’t waste your time with the idiot Glen Greenwald. He is pals with Eve Winifred and Gregory Wilpert… bunch of losers.


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