The Spanish transnational Telefónica revealed requests for interceptions of more than 1.5 million of its telephone lines and internet accesses in Venezuela in 2021, which human rights defenders considered as a sign of the advance of a state “mass surveillance” program.
The “legal interceptions” of Telefónica’s telephone lines and internet accesses jumped from 380,250 in 2016 to 861,004 in 2021, with more than 1.5 million “affected accesses” in that last year, according to a company report, present in Venezuela since 2005.
The company released data on the requests for interceptions and blocking of websites received from the authorities in the twelve countries where it operates: Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.
“It is a systematic abuse of the interception of communications,” said Andrés Azpúrua, director of VE Sin Filter, a Venezuelan NGO that fights against internet blockages and restrictions.
The interceptions by agents of the government of the illegitimate president Nicolás Maduro and other authorities, whose number quadrupled in six years, show “a program of mass surveillance through the interception of communications and the capture of metadata,” Azpúrua warned, denouncing this situation as a large-scale violation of human rights that draws an authoritarian scenario.
Carlos Correa, director of the NGO Espacio Público, which monitors attacks against freedom of expression, lamented the increase in “telephone taps.”
These “punctures” covered 20% of Telefónica’s clients in Venezuela compared to only 0.28% in Brazil, 0.05% in Argentina or 0% in Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador.
In addition, between 2016 and 2021, there were more than 3.5 million requests for interceptions aimed at knowing subscriber data and their location in real time.
And close to a million lines (997,679) were affected by requests for “metadata”: personal information, location, IP addresses, number of text messages received and sent, and incoming and outgoing calls.
The report highlights, among the “competent authorities” that have made the requests, the Intelligence Service (Sebin) “upon request from the Public Ministry and authorization from the corresponding judge”, the scientific police and the Armed Forces, as well as the “other bodies and special criminal investigation entities.
On the Sebin there are multiple complaints of violation of human rights and persecution of opponents.
The National Experimental Security University (UNES) is also empowered to request wiretaps. “In practical terms, what is the need for a university to have the power to intervene in private communications?” question members of Espacio Público.
“This speaks of a very high level of surveillance by the State,” says Correa.
Telefónica is the main mobile phone provider in Venezuela. The state-owned CANTV, for its part, dominates the telephone and fixed internet market.
Regarding internet access, more than 1,300 sites have suffered between 2016 and 2021 blockages or content restriction in Venezuela at the request of the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel), according to Telefónica.
Journalists and human rights organizations had been denouncing massive blockades of internet portals of media outlets critical of Maduro.
According to the report, the year with the highest number of blocks was 2016, with 1,050, followed by 2018, with 106, while in 2021 there were 30 requests.
The document does not detail the characteristics or nature of 98% of all restricted sites, although it does reflect that in 2019, 27 URLs of “gaming and betting sites” were targeted.
According to Espacio Público, 45 of a hundred news portals in Venezuela are blocked.
Blockades, by international standards, should occur following orders from judges or court rulings, but in most of the cases registered in this country there is no information on the reason for the URL restrictions, criticized Correa.
Although the data corresponds to only one of the telecommunications companies that operate in Venezuela, “one must think that the situation is similar in the others,” he adds.
Although there is no public data on the others, “the number of interventions requested must also be very high,” Correa estimates.
AFP requested comments from Conatel, but spokespersons for that organization ruled out offering statements for the time being. He also tried to contact, without response, representatives of other operators.