This is the first in a series of posts mapping state surveillance challenges in Latin America and lessons learned at EFF’s State Surveillance Camp in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.

What happens when you place a mix of journalists, technologists, human rights lawyers, digital rights activists, and victims of surveillance from around the world in a room to map the problems of electronic surveillance? What emerges is a complicated story made up of a number of complicated stories. Each participant brings a particular expertise to bear on the larger surveillance puzzle. Taken as a whole, these voices paint a portrait of state surveillance that is far more contextual and diverse than most people could imagine.  More than anything else, what one learns is the critical role that context—the unique political histories and conflicts, socio-cultural expectations, and surrounding foreign and national policies—plays in shaping how state surveillance programs and practices are being carried out. This includes who can be surveilled and the ability of citizens to challenge surveillance. In spite of these disparate conditions, some surveillance practices are common to Latin America and continue to reappear amidst very different contexts.

With this in mind, at the end of last year, EFF organized a Surveillance and Human Rights Camp in Brazil that pulled together the expertise of different constituents concerned about electronic surveillance, and this is what we’ve learned:

Surveillance in Context

While most Latin American countries have democratically-elected governments, few have traditions of strong privacy protections. Intense political instability, internal wars, and military regimes have long established cultures of state surveillance in many countries. Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Paraguay, and other Central Americans countries have experienced multiple internal wars: the war against terrorism and the war against drug trafficking to name a few. These wars have created a reactionary climate and have bred a rapid expansion of surveillance architecture. On the other side of the spectrum, countries like Argentina and Chile have endured military regimes but have not faced similarly intensive drug wars and terrorism conflicts. Nevertheless, many such countries, including Argentina, have instituted compulsory national ID schemes and have stored the information in huge databases, opening the floodgates for privacy abuses. Those databases, which are themselves remnants of previous military regimes, are currently being “modernized” to collect biometric identifiers in several countries in the region. Surveillance technologies have been repurposed to silence judges and opposition voices, demonstrating the ease with which they can be abused to subvert the rule of law in any democratic nation lacking robust checks and balances.

Distinct Contexts for Those with Access to Technology

Why does a government chooses to surveil its citizens? What legal limitations and safeguards have been established? Are these enforced? How do citizens react and perceive state surveillance? The answers to these questions, of course, depend on context. The realities of individual countries vary drastically. The problem can be divided into distinct contexts for those with access to technology and for those on the other side of the digital divide. Information activists and people in urban settings (bloggers, journalists at large, news companies, online activists) and those working in rural areas (indigenous activists, environmental activists, rural and community journalists) have noted differences in surveillance practices, tactics, and problems—particularly in areas where conflicts around mining and large-scale resource extraction are taking place. Many of the most violent conflicts in Peru, Mexico, and Central America are occurring in rural areas often in the context of the war on drugs. The added attention intensifies surveillance mainly due to the added foreign aid.

Challenging the Assumption that Surveillance Equals Security

In many regional contexts, civilians have embraced new security measures under the  misconception that more intrusive measures will naturally lead to greater security. In countries like Guatemala, civil society groups have even advocated for laws opposing basic privacy protections, such a law requiring mobile phones to be registered. In Mexico, various groups strongly supported a geolocalization bill that allows authorities to track location data without a warrant. Attendees of our Surveillance and Human Rights Camp noted that all too often the public does not challenge the government and private sector surveillance that is taking place and many simply accept these activities without question.

Role of the United States in Surveillance Technologies in Latin America

For several years, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been providing cooperation to Latin American States to fortify local law enforcement and intelligence agency efforts to combat drug trafficking. This aid in surveillance technology has been implicated in abuses of power. For instance, the Colombian government illegally spied on political opponents and human rights activists rather than on drug lords. The "Las Chuzadas" scandal erupted around former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Colombia's intelligence agency (DAS) privacy abuses in 2009. As a result, a former head of the intelligence agency from 2002-2005, Jorge Noguera, was sentenced to 25 years in jail for illegally spying on political activists and collaborating with paramilitary death squads.

Leaked US diplomatic cables shed light on the DEA’s communications surveillance program. In the cases of Paraguay and Panama, the US government was pressured to permit the use of these technologies to spy on leftist groups in operations unrelated to narcotics investigations.

Context plays a critical role in shaping how state surveillance programs and practices are handled. While many differences exist, some surveillance practices are common throughout the region. U.S. foreign aid for surveillance, while intended to combat crime, has been used for practices that lead to abuse. Next, EFF will be writing about the role of outsourcing police enforcement in Latin America.