Colombia’s police plan to spy on citizens’ social media

(Image: "The Lives of Others" screenshot)

Colombia’s Inspector General’s Office has raised concerns about police plans to buy cyber surveillance equipment that would provide access to social media accounts and messaging services like Whatsapp, newspaper El Tiempo reported Thursday.

The National Police’s intelligence unit DIPOL opened a $1.2 million (COP4.5 billion) bid for technology companies that provide this type of spying services last month, according to the newspaper.

The police reportedly said it is looking for digital surveillance software to improve citizen security through “following media tendencies and social media.”

Specifically, the police said it will use public information that is voluntarily shared by users in their social media profiles,  like followers, comments, interactions, locations and hashtags.

According to DIPOL, another purpose is to be on alert for Google searches related to child pornography, arms trafficking, drugs, banking crime, among others.

This is too vague, according to the Inspector General’s Office, which wants DIPOL to specifically indicate what legal standards will be applied to crawl the internet, who will have access to the information and how citizens’ privacy will be guaranteed.

Criminal law expert Jacques Simhon told the newspaper that there should be legal limits also on the crawling of public information.

From a law enforcement point of view, this is legal; but it must be clear who is keeping the information not used for prosecution and for what purpose.

Criminal law expert Jacques Simhon

Multiple scandals involving authorities abusing surveillance equipment have sunk public confidence in the authorities’ respect for privacy and the legal use of equipment wanted by Police Intelligence.

  • Last year, the Council of State found a former DIPOL commander Guillermo Julio Chavez guilty of illegally wiretapping demobilized paramilitaries.
  • Journalists Claudia Morales, Jairo Lozano and Vicky Davila were warned in 2015 they were targets of surveillance and interceptions by DIPOL to protect General Rodolfo Palomino, who was involved in a prostitution scandal.
  • Now-defunct intelligence agency DAS was caught wiretapping state officials, magistrates, journalists, and opposition leaders.
  • Former Prosecutor General Nestor Humberto Martinez has been accused of using prosecution wiretapping equipment for all kinds of reasons.
  • Weekly Semana revealed earlier this year that the National Army was unlawfully wiretapping and profiling state officials, magistrates, journalists, and opposition leaders.

The police has until August 18 to answer the Inspector General’s questions, according to El Tiempo.

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