Colombian “Shadow State”: The blending of public and private sectors in mass surveillance

Digital binary code on computer screen, pen pointing out "we're watching you" surveillance breach in red characters.
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The deployment of surveillance in the 21st century digital (shit-show) of a society we live in carries some especially decentralized features. We can no longer look at the state as a central apparatus from where surveillance emerges and is conducted. And we also can’t assume that surveillance has shifted to a new center in the private industry. This “blurring of sectors” is one of the main trends in Canadian (and certainly, global) surveillance reported by Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Read this particular chapter of the report for free here. This is an interesting meditation on these important, and really complex, issues in light of the development of a “total” surveillance program in Colombia.

According to a report released by Privacy International –the Colombian state has, over the past few decades, constructed a vast surveillance net that borders on total surveillance. An apparatus that has, in fact, been used on political opponents, leftist Guerrillas, and activists in the past. This is what Vice News refers to as the “Shadow State”. A story that is shaping up to look like some sort of dystopian sci-fi. This could also be a case study in the dangers of unimpeded surveillance for state or private interest.

Let’s look at a quick recap of its development (according to Vice News)! In the 1990s, the Colombian state invested in a surveillance system called “Esperanza”. In sociology, there is this concept called surveillance creep which essentially means that once surveillance system is set up, it continues to grow and eventually take on tasks that were never its initial intention (Lyon 52). In the case of Esperanza, it was expanded over the next few decades until a new program was developed. PUMA was developed in 2007, and through surveillance creep was later upgraded to super-PUMA through a multimillion dollar investment. These systems now have the capacity to track and log phone calls and conversations to government servers to create profiles on all citizens. Much of this work is done without warrant or heed to the established laws governing intelligence agencies or state surveillance. For a much more detailed description of the story—visit the VICE article.

What I found interesting was the focus of the article on the centrality of the state government in the construction and implementation of their “shadow state”. They do discuss the private industry in the article. However, not mentioned is that there is likely to be a thin veil of separation between the involved capitalists and the state.

   “Surveillance is big money,” explained Rice. “If you sell people guns, they may come back for more guns someday, but if you sell surveillance, you immediately start providing customer support, IT services, and upgrades.”

VICE News.

To only focus on the use of surveillance to reproduce and safe guard state power is to ignore many of the other contributing factors and risky slopes that exist in these situations. One being, that a collection of private interest corporations are cashing in big time on the suffering and repression of an entire nation. Of course, this cash grab is obscured and made opaque by discourses of terrorism and crime. So not only is the state as a result becoming more powerful through draconian and cloak and dagger strategies—but a slurry of private corporation is also filling its coffers.

According to the VICE news article:

“The dozens of documents reviewed by Privacy International show that the Israeli companies Verint Systems and NICE Systems have been especially crucial in building Colombia’s electronic spying capabilities. Both have helped steadily expand the country’s “network” surveillance system, which uses a series of probes to latch on to Internet servers and collect data from 3G phone networks.”

These private corporations, I would speculate, also have access to the collected data in aggregate of an entire country’s population. The Transparent Lives report writes,

“The blurring between these agencies may be illustrated in many ways, but the effect of driving more surveillance is common to each case. Public and private bodies have different mandates and different modes of accountability, and personal data become vulnerable to misuse and abuse as the data streams flow in new directions.”

So even though abuse from the Colombian state is actually terrifying—there is at least, even if they are not always followed, a set of governing laws. Which is sometimes not the case of a private industry that is mandated to swing large profits. But the likely case seems that there is probably quite a lot of overlap between these surveillance corporations and the state interests.

It is increasingly important to see surveillance as a process that transcends traditional boundaries between public and private sectors. As these sectors, in an age of global capitalism are beginning to merge in many complicated ways.

About Abigail Curlew

Abigail Curlew is a PhD student of the sociology of surveillance at Carleton University, a freelance journalist, and an activist. She writes to bring attention to surveillance issues in technology, media, and politics in order to inform the public of the threat of ubiquitous watching.