Saturday, February 8, 2014

Colombia's NSA

The military had set up a secret office in west Bogotá disguised as a video game retailer and hackers' hang-out, apparently to eavesdrop on Colombia's guerrillas. But the listeners allegedly went beyond their mandate and also listened in on the government's negotiators in Havana, Cuba.

Pres. Santos seemed to suggest that behind these actions was someone who wanted to sabotage the negotiations with the FARC guerrillas. That would make sense, since a peace treaty would reduce the military's influence and importance in Colombian society - as well as its budget.

But the broader danger which this episode, first reported by Semana magazine, illustrates is the way that surveillance programs, without proper oversight, tend to expand beyond with little control.

This isn't the first time this has happened in Colombia. The most notorious previous case was the DAS scandal of Alvaro Uribe's administration, when the government intelligence agency spied on all manner of people suspected of hostility to Uribe, including journalists, Supreme Court judges. The episode led to the DAS's liquidation.

Last year El Tiempo reported that the police planned to spy on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook and to do so were considering hiring an Israeli-American espionage company with a dubious background.

The United States' National Security Agency has, controversialy, monitored phone calls, e-mails and all sorts of other communications. That seems to have gone far beyond a reasonable, focused kind of surveilliance.

Lots more will come out about the military's eavesdropping program, which has already gotten four officers suspended. But, if they were spying on government negotiators, it's a fair bet that the espionage didn't stop there.

Espionage is a legitimate tool for governments - and its use is inevitable, in any case. But, particularly in a nation like Colombia, surveilllance requires a effective and transparent oversight. Otherwise, here comes 1984.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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