Colombian police built a shadow surveillance state outside of lawful authority, Privacy International investigation reveals

Press release

The release of a new report by Privacy International exposes Colombia's intelligence agencies' previously unknown history of developing communications surveillance capabilities outside of lawful authority.

The report “Shadow State: Surveillance law and order in Colombia” reveals, via previously unreleased documents, the Colombian police agencies' and intelligence services' long history developing surveillance systems. Rather than building a well-regulated system of surveillance after Colombia had to dismantle one of its intelligence agencies that was implicated in human rights abuses, this report shows how a variety of agencies are indeed aiming to expand surveillance capabilities. Further, these sought-after surveillance systems do not operate cohesively. Despite international scrutiny of Colombia's surveillance scandals in recent years, intelligence agencies were keen to build their own secret and unlawful surveillance systems.

The report shows:

Colombia's Directorate of Police Intelligence (DIPOL) acquired and deployed its own mass automated communications surveillance system outside of lawful authority.

The Integrated Recording System (IRS) began its development in 2005. It was to be capable of monitoring 3G mobile phone networks as well as trunk lines, carrying voice and data communications for the whole country. The system was built to be separate from the existing surveillance system, “Esperanza”, which was administered by the Attorney General's office. According to interviewees within the report, these developments were a symptom of institutional rivalries between the different security agencies in an environment that demanded immediate results.

During the development of this system, DIPOL was involved in scandals relating to the abuse of surveillance powers. In 2007, eleven police generals were dismissed following revelations that the agency had tapped influential opposition politicians, journalists, lawyers and activists. While it is not suggested that the IRS was the system used for this unlawful spying, questions go unanswered about who was protecting the Colombian people from abuse by such systems.

The Administrative Department of Security (DAS) had surveillance capabilities until its dissolution in 2011.

The report also reveals that the DAS, the infamous intelligence agency that had to be dissolved in 2011, had independent surveillance capabilities separate from the Esperanza system. The agency was dissolved after a string of revelations that the agency had been spying on journalists, judges, opposition politicians and human rights activists who were critical of the Government of the then-President Alvaro Uribe. The DAS was procuring tactical interception devices and maintaining a network probe throughout the scandal up until the spy organisation's dissolution. The ongoing investigation into the DAS' illegal surveillance is focused on the misuse of the Esperanza surveillance system. Privacy International hopes the revelation of DAS' surveillance capabilities will expand the remit of the investigation to include its role in human rights abuses.

Tactical surveillance technologies purchased by DIPOL and DAS in the past.

While DAS and DIPOL were purchasing and developing their large network surveillance systems, the agencies were also in the process of procuring tactical equipment. In 2005, DIPOL are revealed to have purchased at least one IMSI Catcher. The DAS were also looking to purchase this technology in 2010 from British company Smith Myers while the scandal of its illegal spying was unfolding.

The report also confirms Colombia as a customer of the Italian intrusion company Hacking Team. Hacking Team was hacked earlier this year and details of the company's customers were released to the public. The list included Colombia's national police.

Privacy International's report contains a rigorous analysis of current laws in Colombia, the majority of which were passed after the dissolution of DAS. The report points out a number of concerning interpretations of power in Colombia and calls into question what oversight is in place to protect against further abuse. Currently these extensive powers are in the shadows, so it is difficult to know whether or not innocent Colombians' data is being collected and their right to privacy is being violated.

Matthew Rice, Advocacy Officer, Privacy International said

“We all thought that Colombia’s history of illegal surveillance and abuses of power was well documented. This report shows that there are still practices to expose, systems to reveal, and questions to be answered.

“Colombian citizens have for many years suffered from seeing their law enforcement and security services acting against principles of democracy and interfering with their right to privacy. Once again we have seen a key Colombian institution, the Directorate of Police Intelligence, shown to be operating outside the law since 2005.

“The fallout from the DAS spying scandal is still fresh in the memory of many Colombians, with investigations still ongoing. The exposure of DAS’ secret probe should expand the existing investigation to consider whether there is more to this scandal than the abuse of one surveillance system. Colombians deserve answers and assurances that there can no longer be an opportunity for their agencies to be so deep in the shadows that oversight cannot reveal abuse.”

Carolina Botero, Activist and lawyer, Director of Karisma Foundation, Colombia said

"After all the serious scandals that have shocked the country and many promises about tightening the control over intelligence and police activities, we learn that Colombian authorities, indeed, have mass surveillance capabilities over mobile and internet communications. 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."

Juan Diego Castañeda, Lawyer and researcher at Karisma Foundation, Colombia said

"Revelations about the Integrated Recording System, a mass surveillance system maintained by the National Police Intelligence Division (DIPOL), is particularly worrying as it was previously unheard of. This news points out serious problems of transparency of and control over expenditures on intelligence activities, besides the obvious lack of legitimacy of deployment of mass surveillance systems in Colombia."

The report Shadow State: Surveillance, Law and Order in Colombia is available here