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Surveillance programs in Latin America are fueling the growth of unregulated security contractors

January 31, 2013
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Source: Electronic Frontier Foundation

This is the third in a series of posts mapping global surveillance challenges discussed at EFF’s Surveillance Camp in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Recently, we wrote about how companies throughout the world increasingly face political and legal pressures to assist governments in their surveillance efforts and the many ways in which the private sector is increasingly playing a role in state surveillance. In December 2012, EFF's Surveillance and Human Rights Camp in Brazil built upon this discussion and focused a spotlight on the privatization of public security, states funding surveillance initiatives, and the lack of quantifiable research on security markets in Latin America. Here is what we learned:

 

Many countries, especially in Central and South America, have witnessed the privatization of public security functions.  This is particularly true of those countries with a history of internal wars and military regimes, and later democratization. In these contexts, state security operations have sometimes been funded by governments (both international and national) and delegated to private sector companies.

 

Global studies researcher Otto Aragueta has argued persuasively that in Guatemala, “the transition to democracy produced a formal institutional reform of the security sector, which, in turn, allowed former military personnel to maintain informal mechanisms of control through the private sector.” This is why the proliferation of companies providing security services has increased alongside the transition to democracy and state security sector reform.

 

At the EFF Camp, Guatemalan Human Rights lawyer and Global Voices Author Renata Avila pointed out that the problem is not just in the privatization of security services, but also in the lack of regulation of these private companies or enforcement of existing law:

 

“Private security companies have no accountability in this regard. There is no oversight on the invasive data they collect: In any residential area or building, the private guards can ask to scan your ID. They can photograph your car, and try to record where you go, who you visit, and any other personal details they can get. With a mandatory biometric ID—as Guatemalans have— combined with the hundreds of cameras and over two thousand private security companies storing and sharing data, the future of privacy for activists and citizens in general is compromised.

 

Another danger is that there is some degree of popular support due to the high level of criminality in several countries in Central America. Citizens see surveillance technologies as a way to tackle crime and reason that 'if you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to keep  from the state’. However, there is a lack of research based evidence that shows that the high levels of  surveillance leads to a decrease in crime.”

This increasing demand for private security services has attracted security contractors armed with new surveillance technologies to the region, and is expanding the security industry in Latin America. Yet, little research on the impact of the security market has been done, including how security markets compare across countries, the quantity of products sold to governments vs. private individuals, and the impact on civil liberties. EFF Camp participants called attention to the need for further research into the privatization of public security and the impact of security markets in Latin America and other countries.

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