According to an extensive report by Citizen Lab, for the last seven years the state-sponsored cyber-attacks have targeted members of the political opposition and independent media in those countries. Although their operations have been exposed recently, most of the hackers and their infrastructures remain operational.
“Technological progress has changed the way we work, communicate, and live our lives. It has given us the tools to connect and advance liberty in distant places. However, it has also given authoritarian regimes the means to surveil, threaten, and oppress whistleblowers and dissidents,” said HRF president Thor Halvorssen. “The conventional intelligence agent in plain clothes has been replaced by highly-trained cyber-thugs who carry out criminal hacking operations. They can destroy equipment, issue credible death threats, seriously harm the credibility of an activist, and, even worse, fabricate evidence to secure a wrongful conviction,” Halvorssen added.
According to an independent investigation published last week by Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary research group at the University of Toronto, “a number of journalists, activists, politicians, and public figures in Latin America have been targeted by a large-scale hacking campaign since 2008.” The evidence presented by the report strongly suggests that the perpetrators of these attacks are part of a group of hackers—labeled “Packrat” by the authors of the investigation—who are likely “sponsored by a state actor or actors, given their apparent lack of concern about discovery, their targets, and their persistence.” A noteworthy strategy used by Packrat has been building and maintaining fake opposition groups and news organizations’ websites, and then “us[ing] these to distribute malware and conduct phishing attacks.” The most plausible hypothesis agreed by the authors is that the “ultimate recipient of the information collected by Packrat is likely one or more governments in the region.”
In 2013, Ecuador’s National Intelligence Secretariat was exposed after acquiring $526,500 worth of surveillance equipment with the capacity to “falsify and modify text messages.” In August of this year, an Associated Press investigation revealed that the Italian-based tech company Hacking Team had a $650,000, three-year deal with the Ecuadorean government to spy on “dissidents and environmentalists.”
In 2013, the case of a notorious hacker and agent of Venezuela’s National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) was uncovered after journalistic investigations revealed some of his criminal activities. Under the direct supervision of high-ranking members of the government and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Juan Almeida Morgado—whose hacker alias is “N33”—hacked the email and social media accounts of dozens of journalists, politicians, and public intellectuals inside and outside the country.
In July of this year, an independent investigation revealed that Venezuela’s National Telecommunications Commission provided numerous intelligence reports to the country’s National Intelligence Service that led to the arbitrary arrests and the imprisonment of eight Twitter users.
“Given their long history of repressing the opposition and the media with impunity, it is not surprising that the competitive-authoritarian regimes in Ecuador and Venezuela are pulling the strings behind Packrat’s operations. The democratic governments of Brazil and Argentina, however, owe their people a thorough explanation of their association with these cybercriminals,” added Halvorssen. “And authoritarian leaders are not the only ones taking advantage of technology to do their dirty work. In Venezuela, for example, there’s a well-documented case of a ‘freelance’ hacker known as “RaFa” (Rafael Eladio Nuñez Aponte), a credentialed member of Venezuela’s SEBIN convicted in 2005 by the U.S. government of ‘unlawfully accessing a private government computer and causing intentional damage to a protected computer.’ Mr. Nuñez now offers a subscription service through a company called ‘Clean Perception’ to whitewash the reputation of convicted criminals, drug traffickers, and business cronies of the Venezuelan government,” Halvorssen added.
Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies. HRF’s International Council includes human rights advocates Garry Kasparov, George Ayittey, Palden Gyatso, Mutabar Tadjibaeva, Elie Wiesel, and Harry Wu.
Contact: Noemi Gonzalo-Bilbao, (212) 246-8486, firstname.lastname@example.org