Venezuela tapped 20% of Telefónica user lines, report reveals
Among the report’s key facts: 1,584,547 phone lines were tapped in 2021, representing more than 20% of Telefónica’s customers in Venezuela. Government entities also requested metadata for some 997,679 accounts, or 13% of users.
The report – which details phone tapping and internet censorship in the various countries where Telefónica operates – was released as a result of “our human rights due diligence”, the company wrote.
Telefónica and Venezuelan government entities — including the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL), the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, and the offices of the president and attorney general — did not respond to multiple Washington Post requests for comment.
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The newly released document provides insight into the extent to which Venezuela’s government and intelligence forces have encroached on citizens’ lives and attempted to keep the country’s residents in the dark, said Andrés Azpúrua, director of the watchdog group. Internet VE sin Filtro. He and other experts warn that the report depicts the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to diminishing freedom of expression in Venezuela.
“The scope of government intrusion is far greater than we ever imagined. This is literally full-scale espionage,” Azpúrua said.
The company reported that it tapped the phone lines of far fewer customers in other countries – in fact, phone line interceptions in a dozen countries where Telefónica operates accounted for less than 1% of its total users. Of the more than 1.9 million accounts that Telefónica operated in Latin America and Europe, 80% were Venezuelan.
Unlike other countries, interception requests in Venezuela bypass court orders and are instead made by CONATEL on behalf of the country’s military, police, and intelligence agencies, as well as the Experimental University. security, which trains the police and security forces. The number of wiretapping solicitations they submitted to Telefónica has exploded over time, nearly quadrupling, from around 235,000 in 2017 to more than 861,000 in 2021.
Between 2016 and 2021, Telefónica denied 56,228 requests, according to the report.
The true extent of government surveillance remains largely unknown – after all, Telefónica is just one of Venezuela’s telecommunications providers, said political analyst Nicmer Evans.
“If we consider other Venezuelan public providers, that number could well exceed 5 million people,” he said. “How can a state justify keeping tabs on so many people? This bears no kind of comparison with any other totalitarian system in the world. This is a prime example of the government abusing its power to exert control over the population.
In addition to wiretapping, the document describes how Telefónica, at the behest of the government, increasingly censored internet content across Venezuela, blocking 30 URLs in 2021.
The report did not reveal which web addresses were blocked. However, watchdog group VE sin Filtro documented some 68 web domains that were banned for Venezuelan users in 2021, Azpúrua said — including 45 owned by media outlets; eight to political commentary portals; six to child pornography; four to media sites, including those offering streaming services and SoundCloud; three to human rights organizations; and two to websites dedicated to installing VPNs.
“It’s normal for a government to restrict access to websites related to terrorism and that sort of thing,” Azpúrua said. “But when you have a government blocking more media than any other kind of site, that’s when you see it’s a terrible and unprecedented attack on free speech.”
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Amid a barrage of threats to the media, a growing number of journalists facing exile, and dwindling resources for reporting, information deserts have become widespread in Venezuela. The remaining outlets face a “mountain of obstacles”, said Miguel Henrique Otero, president of El Nacional, one of Venezuela’s last independent newspapers.
Since January, he said, El Nacional’s web page has been blocked by Telefónica and other providers following verbal threats by former vice president Diosdado Cabello on live television. The outlet had published an article about an investigation into Cabello’s alleged involvement in drug trafficking organizations. Cabello is wanted by the US State Department and is facing federal indictment on drug-related charges.
“[Cabello] announced that he was going to shut us up on his program, and that’s exactly what happened,” Otero said. “Telefónica is complicit in following up on orders to violate human rights, without any justification or due process.”
El Nacional lost 40% of its traffic due to the blockade, he added. But what’s worse, Otero said, is that the outlet can’t do much. Adding to the misfortunes is a crippling lawsuit by Cabello against the newspaper, which ended in a heavy fine and the seizure of the headquarters of El Nacional by the government.
“The government has already taken our building. They block our content. I am in exile,” he said. “The only thing left is to keep throwing a tantrum, and that’s what I will keep doing.”
The sheer volume of censorship and surveillance described in Telefónica’s report is compounded by Venezuela’s 2017 anti-hate law, which technically prohibits the promotion of “fascism, hatred and intolerance,” but has been used to prosecute the dissidents. Critics wonder how the government uses the vast amount of data at its fingertips, said Carlos F. Lusverti, a professor and researcher at the Center for Human Rights at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Venezuela.
“It aggravates the situation in terms of privacy but also stigmatization campaigns and attacks on people,” Lusverti said. “These leaks expose, for example, victims of human rights abuses because typical privacy spaces are violated, such as privacy between lawyers and clients or between medical staff and patients.”
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In Venezuela, the specter of espionage loomed so large that for years it seemed like a third party had eyes and ears on every message and every phone call.
Until 2008, opposition groups took steps to try to evade surveillance. For example, student activists, Azpúrua recalls, would huddle in a room to plan an upcoming protest—telling each other the location but identifying another in their texts. It would buy them time before state police forces move in to arrest them, he said.
In a country where censorship has been something of an open secret, Telefónica’s report left many Venezuelans with “dystopian-like assurance” that their long-held suspicions weren’t just paranoia, Azpúrua said. . While some are in disbelief, others are angered by the latest sign that the internet – a space that has become so vast and free to the rest of the world – is continually shrinking for Venezuelans.
“And the worst thing is that this report doesn’t even cover everything,” Azpúrua said. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg – and it’s scary to think of anything below what we can actually see.”