Online attacks against reporters in Venezuela become latest form of censorship (Interview)

President Hugo Chávez's aggressive stance against the media in Venezuela has been characterized as "totalitarian and dictatorial" by the Inter American Press Association, which considers freedom of expression under threat in the South American country.

Recently, another kind of aggression has opposition politicians and critical journalists worried: cyber attacks on e-mail accounts and social networks.

Luis Carlos Díaz, technology journalist and communications coordinator for an investigative and social action organization in the capital Caracas, was the victim of digital crime, receiving threats over Twitter and his cell phone after publishing commentary critical of the Venezuelan government.

In an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the AmericasDíaz describes the threats against him, adding that the purpose behind these attacks is to spread self-censorship, diminish the creditability of critical journalists, and devalue the Internet as a source of information, one of the last havens for dissident voices in the country. Díaz also said that, despite the ever-increasingly elaborate attacks, it is possible, with simple measures, to improve online security and avoid becoming a victim of what he calls "digital paramilitaries."

Knight Center: What were the most recent cyber attacks against you?

Luis Carlos: Last year, a group of cyber criminals hacked e-mail, Twitter and Facebook accounts of various politicians, journalists, and activists from human rights NGOs critical of President Chávez. The hackers released a statement that was aired on Venezuelan state television announcing that their motives were political. As a technology journalist with a column in the Sunday newspaper, I protested against these acts and gave interviews accusing the person or group behind the attacks of violating the Information Crimes Law and offered recommendations and tools to protect against these attacks.

Soon afterwards, in Nov. 2011, the same hacker who insulted me on Twitter harassed me on my cell phone. I denounced the insults directed against me on my social networks and received a quick response from several people.

On Jan. 6, 2012, the hacker accessed the businessman Rafael Núñez's Twitter account, a personal friend dedicated to information security and with whom I gave classes and participated in forums on the topic last year. Again, the hacker started sending me harassing messages until Jan. 10, when he called.

Since their tactic is to make harassing phone calls to their victims, record them, and then post them online, like they did with journalist Berenice Gomez, I decided not to answer. The hacker left a voice mail instead with new threats.

In the threats, he mentioned my work with the Church. I work at the Gumilla Center, an investigative Jesuit organization, called a hotbed of Leftist ideology by President Chávez on several occasions. What the hacker didn't like was my criticisms against the government on my personal social networks and how I worked to show other people how to fight back against digital attacks. That's when I became a victim of the attacks.

KC: Who are the preferred targets of these attacks in Venezuela?

LC: Opposition political leaders, journalists who regularly criticize the government, civil society activists, like Rocío San Miguel, who works on transparency and civil participation, and Jesús Torrealba, who works on poverty.

KC: In your opinion, who is behind the attacks?

LC: An individual or a group that wants to gain favor with the government. We should contextualize this by saying that social networks in Venezuela are a space critical of the government. In the absence of free and independent media, people migrate to the web. That's why, in 2009, President Chávez announced that social networks would be taken and, in 2010, a "media guerrilla offensive" was supported by the Minister of Communication and Information, tasked with imposing the official discourse on all alternative spaces, from the walls of the city to the Internet.

We don't have any evidence that proves these criminals are paid by the government or have any connections with it, but it's clear that their strategy is aligned with the imposition of one single discourse and the silencing of critical voices. It could be a radical group bent on creating their own battle to see if they'll be rewarded. That's why, in some of my articles, I argue that this is not a case of a guerrilla operation but something closer to a "digital paramilitary." They behave like gunmen, eliminating dissident voices on social media. All of this is reinforced by impunity.

KC: What form do the attacks take?

LC: In the beginning, there was a massive attack on e-mail accounts. In some cases passwords were stolen, in others it appeared that the accounts were hacked by malware. The attacks were designed to be simultaneous. Between three and five accounts were hacked following the announcement of an attack.

Later, the hackers became more sophisticated. Victims started to realize that the best thing to do after their Twitter account was hacked was to mark it as "Block/Spam" so the microblog management would know to block it. That's why criminals are now hacking the accounts and pretending to be the user to spread lies and send links in support of the government. One example was when the account of one of the country's best-known economists, José Guerra, was hacked and started sending tweets about the economic crisis in the United States. Luis Vicente León, who runs a well-known research firm, had his password stolen and false information was sent in his name about election candidates and their supporters.

There is no one method used in the attacks and that's why they have been able to keep it up.

KC: What sort of threats do they make?

LC: Personal and direct ones. They will write things like, "you're going to have a surprise," and hack an account. Once inside the plan is the same: they check out e-mails, direct messages, any confidential information that could be used to damage the person's image.

KC: What is the government's position on these attacks?

LC: Ambiguous; there haven't been any statements from the authorities denouncing the attacks or showing any progress in the criminal investigation...however, the group's statements and activities are reported on the official television channel with commentaries denying any connection between the government and the hackers, but encouraging them to continue.

This same state television channel constantly airs propaganda against opposition leaders or human rights activists, and often broadcasts recorded telephone calls by opposition members. This is a state crime that encourages a climate of impunity.

KC: Has anyone been accused and punished?

LC: No one.

KC: What's the worst case you've heard of so far?

LC: The case of Berenice Gómez is the most interesting to study because the hackers didn't stop with her Twitter account, which has over 100,000 followers. They also recorded and posted a telephone conversation with her and announced that they had accessed the journalist's e-mail account as well. This escalates the crime since besides hacking her Twitter account they also spied on her, placing the journalist's sources at risk. Many communicate with her via e-mail. It's a dangerous precedent.

KC: Besides this group of hackers that invade e-mail accounts and steal online profiles of government critics, there are also groups that promise online attacks in support of freedom of expression, like Anonymous. Has the government taken any action against this other group?

LC: Threats from opposition hackers to attack profiles of government officials haven't materialized. There has not yet been any cases of digital attacks against government functionaries.

Anonymous has also not been active in Venezuela. Last year, a group of pro-government militants made a threat pretending to be Anonymous, attacking the supposed tyranny of the private media without mentioning the actions of the Venezuelan government, which isn't in line with Anonymous' actions in other countries.

KC: Do you think that the cyber war will intensify since there is an election this year?

LC: Without a doubt. Social networks will be important to monitor and affect the climate of national public opinion. A few days ago, the Twitter account of opposition candidate Diego Arria was hacked. Hackers falsely tweeted that he would bow out of the election, setting off a flurry of news stories and chatter on social networks. This creates anxiety in the national news media, but, beyond that, works to discredit social networks as a news source. Their intention is to devalue conversations conducted over social networks.

Politics in Venezuela are very polarized and it's impossible to think this would not be reflected in social networks. Hacking profiles is the dirty side of the "battle of ideas" that President Chávez proposes, because it shows that when ideas aren't enough, the fight turns to censorship and silencing critical voices.