Latin American Governments Must Update Privacy Laws

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

October 11, 2016

Electronic Frontier Foundation has released a massive report that details the overreaching surveillance policies of many Latin American countries. The report is called ‘Unblinking Eyes’ and is the result of a project EFF has been engaging in for a year. The document reveals that outdated surveillance laws are enabling the mass interception of data across the South American continent. Intrusive legislation, introduced long ago when wiretapping focused on a single target at a time. These days, however, the same laws can be used to quickly gather data on the entire population.

According to EFF, the power that governments wield in Latin America verges on totalitarianism. It hands governments the power to gather information on citizens indiscriminately.

One concern is the possibility that a military coup might suddenly take power in a Latin American country. If the military did grab power, as things stand at the moment that regime could easily exploit the situation to quickly find and stamp out anybody who opposed it.


Clear and present danger

Understandably, this is a huge worry. In his article about Unblinking Eyes, Cory Doctorow makes mention of “Operation Condor”. That program from back in the 1980s was one of cooperation between the dictatorships of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Brazil. The policy included undertaking kidnappings, persecutions, torture and mass murders to maintain control of South America.

EFF is worried that Latin America’s data isn’t being properly managed and that regimes could possibly use it to mount a coup. In addition, EFF feels that vague, outdated laws, are leading to human rights violations. South America has got excellent digital infrastructure including high-tech kit purchased from the US, which gives staggering surveillance powers to whoever is in charge,

‘Today, less than a generation later, these countries and their neighbors are effecting surveillance dragnets that are one click away from totalitarianism. Following a military coup in one of these countries, the new generalissimos would be able to quickly crush their opposition and undertake mass arrests of all potential dissidents.’


Take the data back

A huge amount of data is at stake, and EFF wants people to understand just how serious their lack of privacy could be. In the last year, EFF and its partner organizations have lobbied for South American governments to change their surveillance policies.

EFF is pushing for a system based on a ‘necessary, adequate and proportionate’ amount of surveillance. It argues in favor of individual digital rights, and is attempting to educate people on the need for privacy and the importance of encryption and data laws,

‘State officials and civil society must ensure that written norms are translated into consistent practice and that any failure to uphold the law is discovered and remedied. Judicial guidance from impartial, independent, and knowledgeable judges is needed.’

In Latin America, ISPs retain all data for the government by default. Outdated surveillance bills allow everyone to be spied on all of the time. EFF hopes to change that,

‘The Necessary and Proportionate Principles provide a touchstone for assessing whether a state’s communications surveillance and interception practices comply with its human rights obligations. In this paper, we assess how closely each state’s practices reflect those Principles.’

Spy tech is advanced in Latin America and it needs to be properly managed argues EFF,

‘New surveillance technologies such as cell-site simulators or IMSI catchers and malware are in widespread use without any specific authorization or human rights protections in place.’


Not all bad

Despite the fear that Latin American countries could be at risk of a military coup, EFF recognizes that some places didn’t get everything wrong,

‘Beside these general concerns, we can categorize the failings, reforms, and occasional successes of Latin American surveillance law under the individual principles of the Necessary and Proportionate standard.’

As such there is an emphasis on making the most of existing cyber sec infrastructure, coupled with a dedication for enforcing vital policy changes.

Pushing digital awareness

EFF’s findings are the result of a project working alongside Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales, Fundación Karisma, TEDIC, Hiperderecho, Derechos Digitales, InternetLab and Fundación Acceso. EFF has worked with the NGOs for a year, gathering information for its report while providing workshops to educate influential figures and groups within Latin America.

‘Our project was not limited to legal research, however. We mixed our legal and policy work with on-site training throughout the region for digital rights activists, traditional human rights lawyers, investigative journalists, activists, and policy makers.

We explained how surveillance technologies work and how governments must apply international human rights standards to their laws and practices in order to appropriately limit those legal powers. We also mixed our legal and policy workshops with technical advice on how our partners in the region can protect themselves against government surveillance.’

A huge undertaking

The data is startling, and the detailed level of the findings is a testament to EFF’s willingness to tackle the problem head on. South America is vast, and EFF is attempting to improve the digital rights of people across the continent. It is a staggering project that could greatly improve digital privacy in Latin America.

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