New Intelligence Law Legalises Hacking

News from Colombia | on: Tuesday, 2 August 2011

On 7th June 2011, the Colombian Congress passed the Law on Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence. According to its proponents, the law “has the objective of strengthening the legal framework around intelligence” and provides measures to protect citizens from the illegal wiretapping and other illegal intelligence activities, many of which had become pervasive under former President Uribe.


However, the law has been severely criticised by social and legal organisations, trade unions, and by the political opposition. These claim that the law will be used to target the political opposition, silence criticism of government, and enable the cover-up of abuses committed by the armed forces and other state institutions. According to the Democratic Pole opposition party, the law allows “the legalisation of phone tapping, followings and unfounded legal accusations.”

Worryingly, the law legalises the privatisation of intelligence work. Despite the creation of a Joint Intelligence Junta meant to oversee the work of intelligence agencies, there is no mechanism to ensure that constitutional and human rights are respected. It is the self-regulation of intelligence agencies. Critics point out that Colombian intelligence agencies have documented links to paramilitaries, as in the case of the DAS providing lists to paramilitaries, and that of paramilitaries conspiring with government officials to intercept or create recordings of conversations to smear political opponents of then President Uribe.

No enforcement mechanisms

The law states that intelligence cannot be used to target the political opposition, trade unions and other groups, but critics have noted with alarm that it contains no mechanisms to enforce the fulfilment of this requirement. Given that rights contained in the Colombian Constitution are routinely violated by the security forces and intelligence services, it is not likely that this intelligence law will be any different without an independent and powerful enforcement mechanism.

Opposition groups have reserved particular criticism for the law’s allowing of ‘barridos’ or sweeps. These will allow intelligence services to monitor communications including emails, internet use and telephone calls. According to Carlos Lozano, editor of Colombian weekly newspaper “Voz” this means that “what was done illegally before, will now be done legally.” They state that one of the key failures of the law lies in its definition of communications interception. According to the law “monitoring intelligence does not constitute interception of communications” and yet clearly if intelligence services are allowed to monitor communications then they are, in effect intercepting them.

Effects on media

Critics have also pointed out that the law forces the media to reveal their sources and provide information to the intelligence agencies upon request. This, opponents of the law argue, will largely silence the media from exposing serious abuses committed by state forces, as was the case with the ‘false positives’ scandal where thousands of civilians were found to have been killed and then presented as guerrillas killed in combat. It was also the case with the ‘chuzadas’ hacking scandal that has seen numbers of Colombian functionaries and intelligence personnel linked to cases of hacking aimed at the political opposition and social organisations. According to the Colombian Free Press Foundation this prioritises military secrets “over an issue of public interest.”

Human rights organisations have also expressed concern that the law will affect their work. The law states that it will be illegal to reveal intelligence that clashes with the national security interest. This broad definition means that the armed forces and security services will have legislation at their disposal that will allow them to target human rights groups which are often the first to denounce military abuses of human rights. According to critics it will thus “lend itself to judicial framings and the political persecution of the opposition.” Thus, by silencing human rights groups the law will help to brush the scale of human rights abuses in Colombia even further under the carpet.

Leakers will be punished

The law also contains extensive measures against government functionaries who leak what is regarded as ‘reserved’ information. Rather than protecting sensitive sources of information, opponents see this measure as providing the means to silence those leakers who have been crucial to uncovering a series of recent scandals in Colombia, which have highlighted cases of widespread corruption as well as human rights abuses, and close links between paramilitaries and the security services.

Critics are also concerned that the law allows the President to classify intelligence deemed to be in the national interest for periods of up to 45 years. They allege that this will enable the government to hide its abuses for long enough for them to become irrelevant, in effect bolstering the almost complete impunity with which abuses by the state and paramilitaries are met.

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