Colombia’s police and intelligence agencies deploy "secret and unlawful" surveillance tools and techniques, which allow authorities to access mass internet and cellphone data beyond the scope of law, a new report by the London-based advocacy group Privacy International revealed Monday.
The report asserts, “agencies are building their own surveillance systems, in the shadows, without sufficient scrutiny and without lawful basis.”
"We all thought that Colombia’s history of illegal surveillance and abuses of power was well documented," Matthew Rice, advocacy officer at Privacy International, said in a statement. "This report shows that there are still practices to expose, systems to reveal, and questions to be answered."
According to the detailed report, “Shadow State: Surveillance, Law and Order in Colombia,” one tool, called the Integrated Record System, which was developed by the Colombian police intelligence and used within the past 10 years, is capable of monitoring third-generation cellphones and snooping on lines carrying voice and data communications nationwide.
The report documents that the system has the capacity of collecting 100 million call data minutes and 20 million text message records per day, without the service providers' knowledge or consent.
Colombian government agencies have also been deploying tactical surveillance, according to the investigation. The police intelligence agency DIPOL was deploying fake phone base stations that “can monitor phone usage and intercept communications without involvement from service providers nor necessarily with the knowledge of judicial authorities,” the report reveals.
In another twist, Colombia has received high-level technology from two Israeli companies — the Israeli arm of the security and surveillance company Verint Systems and security Nice Systems.
In recent years, several high-level scandals relating to Colombia’s intelligence agencies have prompted outcry at home and abroad, and calls for reform.
In 2007, senior police generals were fired after it was revealed that the national police had spied for years on activists, journalists and opposition political figures. Meanwhile, in 2011, it was revealed that the country's national spy agency conducted surveillance and harassed more than 600 politicians and public figures who opposed the then right-wing conservative President Alvaro Uribe. In 2014, Colombian newspaper Semana revealed that a Colombian army unit, codename Andromeda, had been spying for more than a year on the government’s negotiating team in the ongoing peace talks with the leftist rebel group FARC.
“The scandals have shocked and galvanized Colombia’s civil society and ordinary citizens. But it has reinforced their assumption that that they are always monitored,” the report said.
The report highlights that these recent government undertakings have been undermined by the secret expansion of those surveillance tools, which are illegal under the country's “flawed” laws.
“This investigation by Privacy International based on confidential documents and testimonies shows that recent reforms have been undermined by surreptitious deployment of mass, automated communications surveillance systems by several government agencies outside the realm of what is proscribed by Colombia’s flawed intelligence laws.
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Much of the intelligence-gathering technology was developed with direct assistance from the United States and its Central Intelligence Agency, who provided billions of dollars in cash, training and equipment to Colombia over the past 15 years to aid the government against FARC.
However, officials directly receiving these technologies in the police and intelligence were implicated in the illegal surveillance on the journalists, activists and opposition figures in recent years.
“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, and for us, as civil society, to keep our work pointing out these abuses," Carolina Botero, director of the Bogota-based Karisma Foundation, said in a statement.