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How Colombia Built a Massive Surveillance 'Shadow State'

Colombia has spent millions of dollars to procure high-end surveillance technology that can intercept cellphone calls, capture text messages, and sort through personal information to create profiles of citizens.
Photo by Rafe Swan/Getty Images

International surveillance companies are helping Colombia build a hulking spying apparatus that circumvents the country's own privacy laws, according to a watchdog group.

Two new reports from Privacy International show that the country has spent tens of millions of dollars to procure high-end surveillance technology that can intercept cellphone calls, capture text messages, reroute internet communications to government servers, and sort through personal information to create profiles of citizens.


The surveillance supply chain is a complex "spiderweb of connections," Matthew Rice, an advocacy officer at Privacy International, told VICE News. Using a trove of procurement documents and conducting numerous interviews with industry insiders, the organization was able to map Colombia's surveillance network in surprising detail. Over the past decade, Rice said, the country has quietly and covertly spent millions to push forward "significant expansions in surveillance capabilities… with very little legal oversight."

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Though Colombia's surveillance juggernaut is ostensibly meant to target criminals and guerrillas — just as America's "war on terror" has been used to justify massive NSA surveillance — advocates of civil liberties don't trust the government to confine its snooping to criminal activity.

"Nearly every social movement, activists, journalists, leftist politicians, human rights activists — they all feel threatened and feel that they are being surveilled," Dr. Marc Chernick, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University, told VICE News. "In the old days, people would hear a click on their phones, and know they were being tapped. Now, it's a bit more intense."

The Colombian Embassy did not return calls from VICE News requesting comment. General Rodolfo Palomino, the head of Colombia's police, also declined to comment when contacted by the Associated Press. A number of companies mentioned in the report also did not respond to request for comment.



The dozens of documents reviewed by Privacy International show that the Israeli companies Verint Systems and NICE Systems have been especially crucial in building Colombia's electronic spying capabilities. Both have helped steadily expand the country's "network" surveillance system, which uses a series of probes to latch on to Internet servers and collect data from 3G phone networks.

According to Privacy International, Colombia can use that data to automatically view "connections between people, their conversations and events, and build profiles of individuals and their contacts."

The report also contains details of bids made by foreign companies working to convince Colombia to invest in surveillance. In 2012, the American data analysis company Palantir tried to sell Colombia a $1.5 million software tool to help categorize and sort it's surveillance information and also potentially ingest information from Facebook and Twitter and integrate it with police databases. Palantir claims that the system was never deployed, however.

"Surveillance is big money," explained Rice. "If you sell people guns, they may come back for more guns someday, but if you sell surveillance, you immediately start providing customer support, IT services, and upgrades."

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Several of the companies profiled in the report have offices in Colombia and charge monthly fees to store data and keep systems running smoothly.


It's hard to know exactly what surveillance systems are in place at a given time, since spying in Colombia is managed by a dizzying constellation of government agencies. Some technically operate with legal oversight, others work completely in the shadows, but almost all of Colombia's security agencies have a history of gross human rights abuses.

"Abuse of-power is routine," said Chertoff. "Authorities say they are fighting subversives and criminal organizations, but the targets are often political enemies, journalists, opposition politicians, and judges."

"They could be listening to us right now," Hollman Morris, a Colombian journalist who is often critical of the police, told VICE News when reached by phone in Bogota. "The police operate an apparatus of surveillance where they intercept people whom they consider to be political enemies."

Since as far back as 2004, Morris has been surveilled by the Colombian authorities for his perceived sympathy to leftist guerillas. In 2007, then-vice president, now President Juan Manuel Santos accused Morris of supporting the FARC because he had interviewed some of its members for a History Channel documentary. Morris believes the government is using surveillance technology to target human rights defenders and journalists whom it regards as a threat.

"The surveillance apparatus is illegal," he said, "but they keep perfecting it."

Colombia's oldest surveillance system is known as "Esperanza." First developed in the 1990s to help Colombia fight drug trafficking and guerrilla groups, the apparatus has been significantly expanded over the last 15 years with the help of over $8 billion in US aid. Over the last five years, the American security company Pen-Link and the British firm Komcept Solutions have helped to modernize Esperanza, enabling Colombian police to intercept both landline and mobile calls. Law enforcement agencies technically need to secure a warrant beforehand, though retroactive warrants are also granted for time-sensitive surveillance.


The agents who use Esperanza have not often played by the rules. For years, officials from the Administrative Department of Security (DAS) — a domestic spying agency that worked closely with the DEA — used Esperanza to conduct bogus "criminal investigations." DAS was dissolved in 2011 after a newspaper investigation found that it had snooped on 600 prominent public figures, intimidated journalists, and compiled "kill lists." The head of the agency, Jorge Noguera, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for his links to death squads. But over 92 percent of DAS employees retained government jobs, and the spying program Esperanza is still up and running.

Many of the DAS agents found work in the Police Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DIJIN), Adam Isaacson, a senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, told VICE News. In 2007 DIJIN set up it's own parallel surveillance system, called PUMA.

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PUMA is also supposed to be overseen by the attorney general's office, but many of the same personalities involved in DAS are now given access to PUMA.

"These people's careers progressed in a culture of spying on private citizens without warrants or other due process," Isaacson said. "That bodes ill."

With technology from the Israeli companies Verint Systems and NICE Systems, PUMA slurps up data from networks tapped by the DIJIN. According to Privacy International, Colombia has built eight PUMA monitoring rooms across the country where police analyze data re-routed from phone lines. Unlike Esperanza, agents using PUMA do not have to request permission before snooping.


In January, 2013 the Colombian police allocated $23 million to upgrade PUMA into "Super-PUMA" with the help of NICE Systems. The expansion would build up to 700 "work-stations" around the country capable of intercepting 4G cell phone data, but the project has been put on hold due to a turf war between the police and the attorney general's office.

While PUMA and Esperanza are subject to some oversight, a huge chunk of Colombia's surveillance takes place completely in the shadows. In 2005, the spying agency known as the Directorate of Police Intelligence (DIPOL) built the Integrated Record System with help from Israeli companies. The system can collect 100 million cell calls and 20 million text messages a day. According to Privacy International, the apparatus seems to be completely off the books and has no built-in mechanisms to ensure that the data collection is legal.

"Colombian law does not authorize this kind of mass, unregulated surveillance," Rice noted. "We now know that DIPOL has an open line into Colombian networks… but the laws suggest that that's nothing that can be available to law enforcement."

In 2013, Colombia enacted a new surveillance and privacy law that empowered intelligence agencies to monitor the "electromagnetic spectrum" without a warrant, but the interception of specific messages and phone interceptions is not explicitly authorized by law. Nevertheless, the practice isn't technically banned either.


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"I could imagine a lawyer from an intelligence agency saying 'hey, it's not specifically prohibited,'" Isaacson said. "And they are technically right."

That legal ambiguity could open the door for abuse.

"In Colombia, it's hard to know what group of people would be eligible for surveillance," Chernick, the Georgetown professor, said. "But if you are a human rights activists, that's often enough to get on someone's radar."

Colombian civil society groups are not thrilled with the revelations in the report.

"As we stand now, it's clear that there's a long way ahead for the compliance of intelligence and criminal investigation activities with human rights standards," Carolina Botere, the director of the Bogota-based Karisma Foundation, which helps non-governmental organizations build their technology capacity, said in a statement after the surveillance report was released.

Karisma called on other organizations to "keep pointing out these abuses," by the Colombian government.

Privacy International released a list of recommendations for the Colombian government to promote greater transparency in its surveillance program. They included full declassification of the procurement documents and a top-to-bottom review of the legal statutes governing the use and application of the programs.

So far, no one from the Colombian government has issued a response.

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