fundacion karisma

Report Reveals Colombia’s “Shadow Mass Surveillance System”

Colombian law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been significantly expanding their ability to intercept electronic communications for more than a decade with help from private firms in the US, Europe, and Israel. According to a new twopart report by the human rights group Privacy International, these companies have helped Colombia construct a “shadow mass surveillance system in the absence of clear lawful authority, safeguards against abuse and opportunities for public scrutiny.”

“There is a big gap between the general public knowledge about the capabilities of the State and the real technical capabilities of surveillance the State has and employ[s],” Carolina Botero, an investigator from the Colombian technology advocacy group Fundación Karisma, wrote in an email. “We know a lot of what happens in the US, UK or Europe in general. [Former US national security contractor Edward] Snowden did a great job revealing this information. In the meantime there is little knowledge of the capabilities in the south.”

The report raises concerns given the increasing threats faced by various public figures in Colombia. At least 40 activists, journalists, politicians and community leaders were killed last year. Past experience suggests that expanded surveillance capabilities may have helped catch major criminals. But they don’t seem to have made Colombia a safer place for freedom of expression. Instead, these technologies have sometimes been used to target those in need of protection.

According to Privacy International, Colombia’s intelligence and law enforcement services began quietly building the country’s first mass surveillance platform in 2005. The Integrated Recording System, or IRS, was created for bulk monitoring of 3G mobile phone communications. Colombia’s security agencies later obtained a system known as the Single Monitoring and Analysis Platform, or PUMA, which intercepts data on a mass scale from “backbone” telecommunications cables and funnels it to monitoring centers located around the country.

The initial set-up of the IRS and PUMA systems was provided by Verint, an Israeli-American company that reportedly helped the US National Security Agency install similar technologies to monitor the communications of American citizens. Verint has also been accused of exporting its mass surveillance technology to Central Asian governments with well-known reputations for political repression.

In 2013, an Israeli company called NICE Systems won a $26 million contract with its Colombian partner Eagle Commercial to expand PUMA into “Super-PUMA,” including upgrading the system to handle newer 4G traffic. Leaked emails surfaced a few months ago showing NICE Systems also acted as an intermediary in a $335,000 sale of spyware from the Italian firm Hacking Team to the Colombian police. The emails further indicated the U.S Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) uses Hacking Team products capable of monitoring “all the traffic” from Colombia’s internet service providers.

The Privacy International report also describes how the DEA helped the Colombian government develop a targeted telecommunications interception system called “Esperanza” in the early 2000s. The Colombian company STAR Inteligencia & Tecnología provided much of the technology, sometimes using products from the US-based security contractor Pen-Link and UK-based Komcept Solutions.

Esperanza enables targeted surveillance that relies on active “tasking” by human users and supposedly requires specific judicial authorization, such as a warrant. However, Privacy International notes that “even the most tightly regulated of lawful interception systems in Colombia, Esperanza, has been subject to abuse by government agencies.” In 2009, it was revealed that the now-disbanded Administrative Department of Security (DAS) had illegally spied on hundreds of public figures including politicians, judges, journalists, and activists, allegedly using the Esperanza system. The head of the agency at the time, Maria del Pilar Hurtado, was recently sentenced to 14 years in prison for her role in the scandal.

In addition to enabling bulk surveillance of Colombians’ communications, private corporations from the US, Europe, Israel and elsewhere have offered the country’s police an array of “tactical” surveillance gear, like audio and video recording devices that look like child car seats, credit cards and other everyday objects. Many foreign companies also sell IMSI catchers, also known as “stingrays” or “cell site simulators,” which can intercept cell phone communications and track the location and movements of a large number of users.

Privacy International says that rather than helping Colombia obtain accountable and legally-authorized communications interception capabilities, some tech firms have contributed to “overlapping, unchecked systems of surveillance that are vulnerable to abuse.” The report recommends the Colombian government conduct better oversight of how these technologies are being used. It also recommends exporter countries and the international community exert greater controls on the companies supplying these products. “No more than a handful of individuals within the industry appear to have adequately considered the human rights impact of their businesses,” it reads.

The decades-long armed conflict in Colombia has left more than 200,000 dead and millions more displaced from their homes, with widespread atrocities committed by both state and non-state actors. Botero wrote that having lived through such violence had led many Colombian citizens to “truly believe that national security is more valuable than other rights,” including privacy. However, Botero says that a final ceasefire between the government and the main rebel group, which may come soon, would leave “no more excuses for Colombians to resign privacy any longer.”

“There’s no doubt that even if one is not doing anything illegal, there are decisions one takes privately and shouldn’t be forced to disclose to random government analysts,” Botero wrote. “There is a false dilemma when we are forced to choose between security and privacy particularly when security is not an end in and [of] itself.”

Colombia: With election just weeks away, presidential campaign heats up

Cross-posted with Conflict Journal

This is a weekly roundup of events from 30 March to 5 April 2014.

The preliminary round of Colombia’s presidential elections will be held on May 25 of this year. If no candidate receives an absolute majority of votes in the first election, a run-off between the two top-finishing candidates will take place on June 15.

This week, the Centro Nacional de Consultoria (National Consulting Center) published a poll showing former Bogotá mayor and Green Party candidate Enrique Peñalosa finishing 26% to 18% behind the incumbent president Jose Manuel Santos in the first ballot, but beating him in the June runoff 46% to 36%. These results are consistent with previous polling.

Also this week, Peñalosa accused president Santos of “playing politics” with the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the FARC. Peñalosa has said that he supports dialogue but has also said that he would not support a military ceasefire between the combatants while the talks proceed.

Centro Democrático (Democratic Center) candidate Oscar Iván Zuluaga, backed by former president and senator-elect Alvaro Uribe, has been critical of the peace process and has challenged Santos for not withdrawing from the talks following the torture and killing of two policemen by the FARC.

Conservative presidential candidate Marta Lucía Ramírez has said that, if elected, she would put a deadline of four months on the talks. Leftist candidate Clara López of the Polo Democrático Alternativo (Alternative Democratic Poll) has been a consistent supporter of the peace talks.

Zuluaga and Uribe’s far-right party made a strong showing in Senate elections a few weeks ago, but it seems increasingly likely that the second round will be a closely-contested race between the relatively centrist candidates Santos and Peñalosa. Most Colombians support a diplomatic solution to Colombia’s decades-long civil conflict, but they are also increasingly skeptical about the prospects that a deal will be reached.


Colombia’s Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez Maldonado, a member of the Conservative party, publicly criticized the peace talks between the government and the FARC, saying a possible deal with the government would be a “slap in the face” to the victims of the FARC’s crimes.

More than 6 tons of cocaine have been seized in Colombian ports so far this year. Shipping drugs through Colombia’s busy ports, through which millions of containers filled with a wide variety of goods travel each year, remains one of the most popular ways to smuggle drugs into and out of that country.

Two policeman were killed in southwestern Colombia early Friday morning, allegedly by elements of the FARC rebel group. No official evidence has been presented confirming the rebels’ involvement and the FARC has not taken credit for the attack.

Authorities in Bogotá arrested a man who goes by the alias “Machaco.” Machaco allegedly acted as finance chief to Henry Castellanos (alias “Romagna”), a major guerrilla leader of the Eastern Bloc of the FARC.

Six FARC guerrillas were killed, four captured and four surrendered as part of “Operation Maximus,” an army operation taking place in Nariño province. The army also seized various firearms and 50 kilograms of cocaine. Also this week, FARC guerrillas in that region used dynamite to blast a hole in a portion of the Pan-American Highway.

Police have arrested 14 people from the Cali-based gang known as “La Libertad,” who were accused of recruiting child soldiers by falsely promising to sponsor their pursuit of a future career in professional soccer.

More people were killed by land mines in Colombia during 2013 than in any other country, with 368 injuries, including 49 deaths. Vice produced a highly compelling documentary on this issue last year entitled “Colombia’s Hidden Killers.” You can watch it for free here.

FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez said that the rebel group is “willing to reach an agreement” regarding the use of land mines, which he pointed out are also used by Colombian government forces. According to official data, antipersonnel mines have killed at least 2,000 people since 1990, wounding thousands more.

Residents of the northeastern city of Cucuta took to the streets, protesting the worsening economic condition of the region, which is suffering from impeded trade with neighboring Venezuela. 80% of the city’s businesses were closed and 70% of the city’s public transport was forced to suspend the service. More than 450 riot police were called in to break up the protests, which Cucuta Public Security Secretary Ruby Johana Ascanio claimed were illegal because they didn’t follow the proper procedure to obtain legal permission.

A Colombian court struck down a rule allowing aerial fumigation of suspected coca crops in national parks. The court also ruled against the Ministry of Defense and the National Police, saying that the government can be held responsible for damage to legitimate crops, contamination of drinking water, and poisoning of local populations. Colombia’s minister of justice recently asked the United States to shift the focus of its anti-narcotics aid to Colombia away from crop eradication and fumigation efforts.

To Watch

The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that Fundacion Karisma, a Colombian NGO focusing on human rights in the digital age, along with other Colombian NGOs, sent a letter to the Colombian President requesting the ability to participate in a high-level commission at the Organization of American States (OAS) responsible for revising and analyzing the national intelligence legal framework. According to the EFF, ‘This secretive committee currently includes government officials, national security experts and “selected” private sector companies—but no representatives from the NGO community.’

At the conference organized by the OAS, the Colombian Government released a report stating that they had discovered over 40 websites where illegal drugs are bought and sold.

In other cyber-security and surveillance news, a recent report from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine contained a document that indicates that former Colombian president and senator-elect Alvaro Uribe was one of more than 100 world leaders selected as a target for NSA and GCHQ surveillance. According to the article, “An internal NSA description states that employees can use [the “Target Knowledge Database”] to analyze ‘complete profiles’ of target persons.”

FARC rebels continue to attack oil pipelines in the run-up to the presidential election next month. Complicating matters, the U’wa indigenous community will not permit repair crews to enter an area of eastern Colombia until the government cleans up environmental damage and provides more security assistance. The blockade is one of a wave of protests in recent months by rural and indigenous groups over oil companies’ environmental damages and hiring practices.


The department of Valle del Cauca, home to the cities of Cali and Buenaventura, was the most violent area of the country for the fourth straight year during 2013. With a homicide rate of 85 per 100,000 residents, Cali is one of the most murderous cities in the world, while Buenaventura has gained a reputation for horrific gang violence. InSight Crime reports that the battle between the Urabenos and Rastrojos gangs for control of the strategically-important port of Buenaventura is straining the resources of the Urabenos, who will likely fail to win the city. Nevertheless, the bloody war will almost certainly continue for some time, causing even more civilian casualties and displacements than it has already.

Dr. Ginny Bouvier’s blog “Colombia Calls” has a thorough round-up of political developments related to the most recent round of peace negotiations between the FARC and the government, which recently ended. The negotiators began a new session – their 23rd – on Friday.