by Stefano Bocconetti
Ecuador has arrived to this point: now, behind a ‘virtual’ friend could be hiding a police officer. One who investigates everything, without the need for a warrant, without even the need for a suspect. The person with whom one exchanges messages on social networks, in a chat room or on a forum could turn out to be an investigator. And, as an investigator, they could then use as evidence any sentence, any comment they get access to. It is happening in the South American country governed by the neo-liberal banker Guillermo Lasso, in the Andean country experiencing a deep, lacerating political, social, and economic crisis. This includes a dramatic security crisis, with frightening figures, almost four thousand seven hundred dead last year alone. Almost all of them were killed in a no-holds-barred war between the gangs vying for dominance on the Pacific coast, which has now become the main hub for cocaine trafficking to the United States and Europe.
A security crisis that is only the mirror of a country that is now almost at collapse, marked by a harsh social clash, where the indigenous peoples are paying a high price – in deaths, in repression – in their opposition to the many, too many oil extraction licences granted by the government in the Amazon rainforest.
Now, in addition, Ecuador will have another chapter to conquer international attention. It will be the country that has invented a new figure in repressive activities, it will be the first country to authorise ‘social infiltration’ agents. Of course, online espionage, surveillance, and control of civil society were not born in Ecuador, they have a long history that also involves, unfortunately, many democratic countries. A long history that everyone knows: from the most famous spyware, Pegasus, created by the Israeli colossus NSO Group, capable of ‘slipping’ into mobile phones without the owner noticing, used to spy on political exponents even in the old continent, to the executive order signed in March by Biden. A measure by which the US President banned all US federal agencies from using spy software. It is a non-linear story because if the European investigation into spyware – which is about to conclude with a moratorium on their use – should also be mentioned, it should be remembered that France has just decided on an ultra-invasive ‘monitoring’ system in the streets to prevent any tension on the eve of the Paris Olympics.
But, precisely, in these cases we are talking about very sophisticated surveillance systems. Ecuador, its government, has instead chosen a – how should I put it? – rougher, coarser. More economical. Taking the dramatic situation of public order as a pretext, at the beginning of April Guillermo Lasso’s executive passed what is called an ‘organic law for institutional capacity building and integral security’. A long, endless title that hides – it is easy to understand – a stranglehold on civil rights. And within these regulations, there is the ‘pearl’: the introduction of the figure of the ‘undercover cyber agent’. He will have tasks – textually – of ‘patrullaje’, of telematic patrolling. An Ecuadorian justice official will, in short, be able to instruct an agent to invent a pseudonym, an alias and to frequent any forum, any chat room. socialnetworks. He will not need any judicial authorisation and – even more shocking – will not have to investigate any crime. He will just have to ‘patrol’, looking for something. Of some crime. Or more likely, of some unwelcome political judgement.
They will go on ‘fishing excursions’, on ‘trawling’ investigations, as South American users have already described the law. Because the rule literally has no limits: the online infiltrators are tasked with ‘gathering information on crimes committed and also on those that might be committed’. They can spy on everything and everyone, therefore, without bureaucratic obstacles. And that information gathered undercover, anonymously, will count as evidence in a possible trial.
The old law, the one that provided (as in much of the World) that surveillance could only be authorised when necessary for a criminal investigation, has simply been put in the attic. Just as we do not know what will happen to the old rules according to which the information collected was only to be kept for as long as necessary and then deleted. What is more, we still do not know what will happen to the international conventions – also ratified by Ecuador – that prohibit government interference in privacy.
All that is known is that the law has been operational for just over a month. The consequences will be known in a while. And so if the latest appeal launched by the NGOs “to the judicial authorities” of the country to refuse to apply the rules is almost hopeless, the only viable path seems to be the one indicated by AccessNow, perhaps the most authoritative of the digital rights associations: “We call on international organisations, the media, regional alliances and public figures to denounce and continue their fight for the protection of fundamental rights in Ecuador”.
Cover image: Markus Spiske (Unsplash)