Sign up for weekly updates

Peru invests US$22 million to spy on its citizens

This article was originally published by on 4 August 2016.

An Israeli-American company has sold software for monitoring private communications to the Peruvian government for the sum of US$22 million, according to a recent press report. The company also does business in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico. Within the current framework, there is very little that can be done to guarantee that this type of technology is not used to violate human rights and persecute dissidents.

By Gisela Pérez de Acha

The surveillance industry in Latin America is in a great position. The number of companies selling surveillance software to governments in the region is steadily increasing, while no regulations or appropriate checks are in place for the acquisition or use of this technology. In theory, the products sold by these companies are used to "combat crime"; in reality, the private communications of thousands of citizens are illegally monitored, threatening their rights to privacy and freedom of expression and opinion.

The Associated Press (AP) recently published a report detailing the Peruvian government's US$22 million purchase of surveillance software from Verint Systems. The Israeli-American company also operates in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico. According to published documents, "Project Pisco" (the name of the programme, which refers to a popular Peruvian liquor) allows governments to monitor telephone calls, text messages, e-mails, chats and the history data of Internet users. It can track up to 5,000 people and record up to 300 conversations simultaneously. As if this was not enough, the Peruvian National Intelligence Directorate (Dirección Nacional de Inteligencia de Perú, DINI) also authorised payment for SkyLock, another Verint product that allows for the location and tracking of not just any telephone within the country, but any telephone in the world. Four Peruvian phone companies, Movistar, Claro, Entel and Viettel, have signed an agreement with the government to cooperate with geolocation within the country, but with the system's extensive reach the possibilities for abuse increase.

Peruvian law states that private communications can only be monitored or intercepted by judicial order (Law 29.733, Article 13.4]. This requirement, however, does not apply to real-time positioning (Legislative Decree 1182]. In addition, since spying is by its very nature secret, how can we ensure that this system will not be misused by government bodies? How can it be proven that it is effective in crime prevention? How can we know that it is not being used against political opponents, journalists or activists?

These are reasonable doubts given Peru's recent history. Similar mechanisms were previously used to spy on Peru's former Vice President, as well as journalists and security personnel. Without appropriate measures to ensure some level of transparency, notification mechanisms and accountability, violations of citizens' privacy and freedom of expression rights can be expected.

And, as we have said, this is the not the first incursion of this type of system. Verint joins a growing list of companies that are selling surveillance software in the region, a list that includes Hacking Team, Packrat and Fin Fisher. Since 2006, Mexico has had a Verint surveillance platform in place - financed by the United States - that can intercept, analyse and retain any type of information from any telecommunications system. In Colombia, Verint, by way of its subsidiary Curaçao, has been responsible for the development of mass surveillance technology. In the Brazilian city of Nitero, Verint sold around 200 security cameras and other equipment that can be used to monitor individuals' conversations and social network activities. This initiative is worrisome within the framework of the growing surveillance activities associated with the 2016 Olympic Games. Meanwhile, in the Ecuadoran city of Guayaquil, there are more than 800 cameras that, according to the company itself, can even collect biometric information.

Mass surveillance of communications must be strongly rejected as an illegal practice under international human rights law, disproportionate and unnecessary by its very nature. The existing regulatory framework for acquisition and operation of these types of technologies is clearly inadequate. Within current regulations, very little can be done to ensure that this security equipment and software to "combat crime" will not be used to violate human rights and persecute dissidents.

Clearly, the governments of Latin America are willing to spend large sums of money to maintain their surveillance capabilities. Impunity and lack of regulation will provide for growth in this lucrative industry, at the expense of citizens who, as taxpayers, are funding the abuse of their own rights.

Latest Tweet:

In Iraqi Kurdistan, journalists are victim of political tension @CPJMENA

Get more stories like this

Sign up for our newsletters and get the most important free expression news delivered to your inbox.