blue-stamp-eyeFrancisco Vera, projects director of online privacy advocate Derechos Digitales, says Chile knew about Snowden leaks and might be engaging in similar practices.

Reverberations from the documents leaked by intelligence contractor Edward Snowden which revealed the extent of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) global surveillance program continue to be felt around the globe.

Many world leaders — among the most vocal of them Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff — have reacted angrily to revelations that their sovereign institutions and even personal communications may have been targeted by the U.S. security agency.

But the reaction of the political establishment, mass media and general public in Chile has been comparatively tepid.

Francisco Vera, projects director of Derechos Digitales, an organization which works at the “intersection of human rights and the regulation of new technologies” told The Santiago Times that needs to change.

Since the NSA leaks, has the objective of your organization changed at all?
No, nothing has fundamentally changed. Many of the NSA revelations were more or less known before. It is true that no one knew many details, and there had never been an explicit confirmation that these practices took place, but these revelations haven’t changed our vision of defending human rights. In fact, they’ve reinforced that vision, especially in regard to the role of the state.

Not everything that the state does is good or even legal, and oftentimes it’s important to analyze state actions from a human rights perspective — in particular from the perspective of our right to privacy. And it certainly seems that the the NSA, based on its actions carried out in the last five to ten years, has had a complete disdain for digital privacy. So the revelations don’t change our focus nor the essence of our work.

So, you weren’t surprised by the revelations?
I don’t think anybody was completely surprised. Obviously when you read about the details and the extent of the NSA practices, you start to realize that certain fears which seemed like conspiracy theories are actually more a reality today than we may once have thought. The people who really knew what was going on were hackers or people working in computer security. But everyone else had some idea, and now, of course, it’s a dead certainty.

How have Chileans responded to the NSA leaks?
In general, the public reaction in Chile has been pretty unenthusiastic. There’s been little written about the topic, and in general Chile hasn’t been very aware of it. So, naturally, there hasn’t been much reaction. But Chile also hasn’t been the subject of many of the stories that have come out in the media. And we simply haven’t played a major role in all of this. There are maybe a couple of instances where Chile has been targeted by the NSA, but it’s not like Brazil or the European Union, for example, where the NSA had very clear objectives.

Since Chile hasn’t been that involved, the Chilean press hasn’t done much reporting on the topic. What they have done, however, is gather information from the wire agencies and it seems as if they’ve begun filtering it.

So Chile has been targeted before? What types of communication or intelligence was the NSA likely seeking?
It’s hard to know because there aren’t stories that speak specifically to Chile. There has only been one story where Chile was mentioned, and we played a very minor role.

Can we imagine what type of information pertaining to Chile the NSA might be interested in?
Usually the NSA seeks military and government communication, which allows the U.S. government to make the most informed decisions. It’s not that the U.S. has spied on a specific Chilean company, or anything like that. There just isn’t evidence which demonstrates that. But the truth is that the level of Chile’s involvement is pretty minimal and the media has played the topic down, so the public’s response hasn’t been very strong since.

Has Chile spied on its citizens online?
The U.S. and the NSA have an enormous amount of resources and power, but the majority of countries have intelligence agencies that have the capacity to conduct digital surveillance. And Chile’s National Intelligence Agency (ANI) operates with secret norms relatively similar to those of the NSA. They can request secret court orders and never report them, just like the NSA.

Was the Chilean government involved in or aware of the NSA programs?
I think they may have known, but in the end, each agency has their own priorities and their own processes. In the case of Chile’s ANI, I’m not certain of its position on digital surveillance, but they work under strict and secret regulations. One can’t know who works there, their budget, how they spend it or the surveillance measures they take. And at the same time, they coordinate with other intelligence agencies that have to do with the military, the police and the Navy. There is no way a government can be completely sure of the reach of these programs.

The ANI is normally only mentioned in the news when the district attorney pursues terrorism cases in which the ANI has been involved.

Has there been any movement in the government to denounce the NSA’s actions?
There hasn’t been any declaration in Chile that even comes close to what we’ve seen in Brazil and Mexico. Again, Chile has played a minor role in all of this. And it’s also true that this government is not renowned for its reactions against the United States.

How has Derechos Digitales reacted to the NSA revelations?
We are trying to put the topic in context so that people can better understand the consequences of these actions.

What are those consequences?
We think it’s important that, on one hand, people realize that privacy on the Internet is something that needs to be defended, and on the other hand, that people understand that the information circulating on the Internet is oftentimes vulnerable to interception. People need to know that our information online isn’t safe.

At the same time, we need to put this topic into a larger context. The United States is a huge player, but we have to keep in mind that they aren’t the only one. The solution is not to only focus on the NSA — like much of the press has been doing — because there are espionage agencies all over the world. And there have been evolutions in what was done before in terms of espionage. So it’s not just the United States or one U.S. agency. There are a series of surveillance practices and collaborations that aren’t just used for security purposes, but for political and economic reasons as well — and that makes the situation very uncomfortable. But the impact on day-to-day life is not that large, and people in Chile haven’t really reacted to the situation.

In Chile, there are other problems to solve, like the issue of people’s privacy. The laws that regulate our personal information are lenient and allow the government to do a lot with it. Because of that, news that the NSA is spying on us isn’t that big of a deal for Chileans. We are fighting for our rights to privacy with our own government.

So you weren’t overly concerned by the NSA leaks?
Well, there’s no use in running around in circles treating this topic like a scandal, expecting that there will be immediate consequences. The problem is how we become accustomed to viewing the reality of human rights today. That’s important because the U.S. says that their surveillance programs are used ultimately for an honorable end — which is certainly questionable — but what if a more repressive government arrives tomorrow? Then the information that’s been collected will probably be valued differently, more in line with that political reality. So, these things are delicate.

The right to personal privacy is for individuals, not governments.

Do you think there is a balance between national security and our right to privacy?
When we speak of a balance, people tend to think more security means less privacy. I don’t think that’s the case. The way we focus on security today actually ends up undermining our privacy and our security. They both go hand in hand, and greater security for the public can also be better privacy for the public. Greater security can mean that our information is safe from other threats and other powers. If online protection tools work well, then no one is going to be able to violate the Internet. And that also makes it more difficult for countries like China and Russia, who invest lots of money in surveillance, to successfully derail privacy protections and obtain certain information.

I think there’s a false assertion in terms of balance. Today the justification [used by state surveillance agencies] that they are targeting various levels of terrorism is too vague. The justifications that maximize persecution and surveillance instead of privacy actually makes the public less safe.

Is there a notable debate taking place in Chile regarding the intersection between the right to privacy and national security?
I think in Chile something is still lacking from the debate. National security is always a topic associated with the military, and only certain people interested in that topic participate in the conversation. But the people involved in these conversations are misinformed about the Internet. At the same time, there are companies selling online privacy programs that simply don’t work, but they continue to sell a bad product because it’s convenient for them. So, I think that the topic requires a more comprehensive public debate with respect to these factors.

What can Chileans do to protect themselves online?
It’s important that the people are aware of what they are sharing and through what service. With the Internet, people are not clients of free services like Facebook. People’s personal information is sold by these services, which is great for advertising companies, but, as we’ve seen, also very attractive for intelligence agencies. So, it needs to be known that when information is uploaded, people lose control of that information, and it can find its way into the hands of companies involved with NSA programs. That’s really important, and people really need to understand that reality.

Another piece of advice, which is more direct, is to learn about viruses, anti-fraud services, and safe banking transactions.

How do you view Edward Snowden?
That’s a difficult question to answer. He’s sparked a very interesting debate and successfully elevated its importance to the point that the U.S. president and other notable politicians have had to intervene. In general what he’s done has had a very positive aggregate effect. And I don’t think that he’s compromised the security of the U.S. people or the country’s defense operations because really what he showed us is that these surveillance programs are so indiscriminate to the point that perhaps they aren’t even that effective. So, I think it’s important to recognize that what he did was valuable.

The fact that the United States is seeking his persecution is another important topic. If they do ever arrest him, they are going to look to throw him in jail for a long time.

That said, I don’t know if it’s appropriate for every worker in the intelligence sector to have the possibility to decide what information to reveal to the public based on their vision of the public’s best interest. In that sense, Snowden for me is a person who did something very brave, but if he’s a hero or not, that’s something that needs to be discussed in a different context.

By Mason Bryan (
Copyright 2013 – The Santiago Times

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