Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Surveillance of La Oposición in Venezuela

-- By AndresZambrano - 06 Mar 2015


Venezuela is a country in turmoil. Since 2013, prices of basic goods have skyrocketed, prompting civil unrest and massive civil demonstrations in cities across the nation. As a result of this unrest, the Chavista Venezuelan government, led by the late Hugo Chávez’s hand picked successor Nicolás Maduro, has embarked on a campaign to suppress la Oposición (the Opposition) by censoring, spying on, and otherwise intimidating leaders of la Oposición. This short essay will attempt to identify problems with organizing an opposition movement in light of the state’s wide control of access to media, and possible solutions that the opposition leaders can turn to in their struggle against the Chavista regime.


A majority of Venezuelan citizens get their news from print media and television. In contrast to the United States, where nearly 80% of the population has access to the Internet, Venezuela lags behind with estimates ranging from about a third of the country to 40% having any meaningful access to the Internet. Additionally, many users, roughly 50%, access the Internet from cybercafés across the nation (colloquially known as “cybers”), instead of using home-based computers. These unique features of Venezuela’s media cultures could provide interesting solutions to their censorship/surveillance problems, which will be discussed below.


Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in 1999 marked a paradigmatic shift in Latin American politics. In 2007, the Chavista government, realizing the importance of regulating communication, nationalized CanTV, the nation’s sole ADSL provider. During Chávez’s presidency, his Chavista government clashed with opposition media outlets on various occasions, including the shut down of RCTV in 2007 and the criminal prosecution of the editors of “Noticiero Digital” (Digital News) in 2010.

Since Maduro’s ascension to the presidency in 2013, Venezuela has seen an unprecedented shift in the ownership of its primary media outlets, with three out of four of the nation’s leading media groups purchased by groups with ties to the Chavista government. As a result, networks that had previously aired anti-Chavista/pro-Oposición programs are now either silenced (See Globovisión) or face difficulties acquiring licenses to broadcast on Venezuelan TV (See RCTV or Radio Caracas Televisión).

Additionally, Maduro’s government has increased surveillance drastically, even when compared to Chávez’s paranoia-fueled surveillance. Maduro’s government recently joined forces with a Chinese company to install over 30,000 surveillance cameras across the nation, in addition to other sensors to collect and store data on Venezuelan citizens in real time. A particularly disturbing government surveillance practice began during the 2014 student protests, where the Chavista government began recording and disseminating private conversations of student protest leaders, playing the recorded conversations on national news stations and expressly targeting these student leaders as unpatriotic. Additionally, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez posted a list to her twitter page, detailing the names, government identification numbers (numeros de cedula), and dates and location of vacation travel of a variety of opposition leaders in a chilling display of government intrusion, encouraging Chavista supporters to publicly shame the opposition. Finally, Venezuela’s Ministry of the Interior has teamed up with a Cuban tech company Datys, which collects and indexes biometic information, effectively allowing the government to pry into the medical history of any Venezuelan citizen, including, of course, opposition leaders. This level of intrusion seems inapposite not only to our American sense of privacy, but to the Constitutional guarantee of privacy found in Artículo 60 of the Venezuelan Consitution. Only one year into his presidency, Nicolás Maduro has hardly made himself out to be a champion of freedom and the Venezuelan Consitution.



Venezuela’s constitution seems to provide for freedom of expression of thought, opinions, and voice, through any means of communication, which should, by definition, include freedom of expression for the leaders of the opposition. See “Artículo 57” of the Venezuelan Constitution. This provision, however, includes a caveat; anonymity of expression is not permitted, and all who exercise their right to free speech “assume full responsibility” for the content of their speech. Id. This caveat, however, seems at odds with Artículo 60, which guarantees a right to the “protection of your own honor, private life, intimacy, self-image, confidentiality, and reputation.” See “Artículo 60” (emphasis added). This tension between Artículos 57 and 60 is highlighted by Artículo 58’s promulgation of the freedom of communication, that is, the freedom to communicate freely with anyone, but just as long as it falls within the bounds of the law, namely, that messages aren’t “agraviantes” or “offensive.” See “Artículo 58.” As such, it hardly seems like the opposition leaders should lean on the Venezuelan constitution for any meaningful protection from Government speech regulation.


Taking into account Venezuela’s different media culture, solutions to their censorship/surveillance issues might look different than those proposed within the United States. First, as a country with a transient internet population, meaning one where internet users change their access points constantly (logging onto cybercafé computers as opposed to one, home-based computer), evading government surveillance of opposition communications can be both easier and more difficult. On the one hand, changing cybercafés constantly is A) easier given the lack of a sunk cost (the cost of a computer and monthly Internet access) and B) harder for the government to pinpoint or identify a unique user given the constant change in location.

Burner Phones

Luckily, Venezuelans, for the most part, tend to use prepaid SIM cards when using mobile phones, facilitating the easy switch from mobile device to mobile device. If however, opposition leaders prefer to use smart phones for communication, there exist applications that can be used to create the illusion that a mobile phone user is calling from many different phone numbers, making a connection between two individuals difficult to trace. Additionally, individuals can use a virtual private network (VPN) to mask their IP address, allowing them to make untraceable calls with applications such as google voice, which assigns a user a phone number that is not technically linked to an actual phone number. All that is necessary is a fake email address, which is very simple and cheap to create.

Hardened Browsers

Opposition leaders can be easily identified once they log onto Facebook or Twitter from a particular location using a default browser, like safari. A cost effective solution to this problem would be to convince owners of cybercafés to install Tor or PGP encryption services on their computers for users to use freely if they desire. This is a simple and cheap solution. Using a hardened web browser like for, or even firefox with the appropriate add ons, can make a huge difference in maintaining anonymity in the digital world. Educating opposition leaders in ways to cheaply, freely communicate without having to look over their shoulder could fundamentally change Venezuela's situation for generations to come.

This draft contains too much background and too little actual discussion of the subject. You can find more resources addressing the ostensible subject: online organizing in monitored environments. If the real object of the technology is to evade monitoring, you should be writing about how to use VPNs to have secure phone calls, hardened web applications and other relatively simple measures. You would also be investigating how to use free software to make every cast-off computer into secure communications equipment.

But perhaps evading monitoring is not the most important priority for online organizing. This is not a regime that can kill or even jail all its opponents: a couple of prominent mayors and a few leaders is about the limit for the jail population, and death-squad like violence is beyond its range. The society is still mostly free, and the limits of the regime's survival are being reached. Maybe you should see the possibility of paranoia on both sides, and consider other elements of an opposition technology policy.

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r4 - 26 Jun 2015 - 19:43:46 - MarkDrake
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