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Colombia simulated a cyber-attack during protests to generate support for domestic electronic surveillance
A massive staged hack was actually a psy-op orchestrated by the government itself to draw attention to “fact-checking” programs carried out by intelligence services
Bogotá, Colombia- On the morning of May 6, the websites of Colombia’s Ministry of Defense and National Police went black. Dozens of high-ranking defense and police officials' social media profile pictures suddenly changed to the same image— the text “block attempt” over a black background.
As the State kept complete radio silence, pro-government onlookers began to spread rumors of a “cyberterrorism” attack. The blackout hit as the country was reeling from nationwide protests that left 73 dead, mostly at the hands of the police, so a hack of the Ministry of Defense and high-ranking police accounts would represent a serious escalation and a shocking security breach.
The protests were sparked by a proposed tax reform, but quickly grew to encompass widespread police brutality and the failure to implement the peace accord that, at least officially, ended Colombia’s civil war in 2017.
The website blackouts would turn out to be a hoax, a highly-coordinated PR stunt designed by the government to draw attention to a fact-checking campaign, a fact they quietly admitted to in a blog post the following day, but not before they had flooded social media with a video that failed to mention it had all been staged.
On October 29, Colombian media watchdog, the Foundation for the Independence and Liberty of the Press (FLIP), released new details on the campaign. Since its launch, Colombia’s state “cyber patrol” unit has been singling out unflattering stories that it claims are fake and surveilling the online activity of its critics under the guise of fact checking, an activity usually carried out by independent, verified organizations. “It was a campaign against lies that started with a lie,” FLIP stated in its report.
FLIP also published a Ministry of Defense internal communique detailing the plan, alongside the $240,000 contract with the company hired to concoct the scheme. After three hours of blackout on May 6th, the websites came back online, all simultaneously launching the same video, a declaration of their “Truth in a sea of lies campaign”— “They tried to block us,” screamed the video in bold captions, “but we’re still on our feet.”
Defense Minister Diego Molano, the Ministry of Defense, the National Police, dozens of members of the armed forces, politicians within President Ivan Duque’s party, and virtually every military organization in the country, even the account of military sanitation workers, posted the video between 9 and 11:30 a.m, attempting to get the hashtag #ColombiaEsMiVerdad (Colombia is my truth) trending.
“They have tried to block Colombia’s strength, our image, health and life,” announced Molano in a pre-recorded video speech breaking the government’s silence. “But we are still standing.”
The Ministry of Defense further stated in the video that publishing disinformation on social media was “digital terrorism”, a crime that does not exist in the Colombian penal code— and an act they seemed to be engaging in themselves.
Some Twitter accounts, supposedly representing “Anonymous” in Colombia claimed responsibility, saying they had hacked the government.
Defense Minister Molano initially dismissed the FLIP report as “fake news”, pointing to a government announcement published on May 7 that the campaign was conducted intentionally to “bring Colombians to the truth in the sea of lies they were being exposed to daily.”
But he failed to respond to the core accusation of the FLIP investigation: Why had the government conducted a psy-op on its own citizens to justify the launch of an intrusive cyber-security campaign?
Contacted by Pirate Wire Services, FLIP provided detailed documents outlining every step of their investigation that included leaked internal documents of the Ministry of Defense as well as other supporting documents from Colombian internet providers, mayor’s offices throughout the country informed of the plan, and reports from Internet freedom watchdogs.
Molano responded to widespread criticism following the FLIP report on Oct 30 that the campaign was a “teaching exercise”, that Colombian Armed Forces defend “freedom of speech” and claimed that the report from FLIP contains “false news”. It does not.
As part of this new campaign launched under purview of the cyber patrol, army intelligence services collected personal data and monitored journalists, civil leaders and private citizens they viewed as critics during the protests, a practice that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights strongly criticized in July after an investigation into government actions during the strike.
“There are legitimate reasons to develop capabilities to defend against cyber-attack on the International stage,” said Sergio Gúzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a research and consultancy firm in Bogotá. “This is something much darker. This is a State using its cyber-abilities to persecute political opponents.”
In previous days, the government had blamed domestic guerilla groups ELN and FARC for the national strike. When that narrative didn’t stick they tried blaming the Venezuelan and Russian governments. Increasingly desperate to avoid responsibility, they had resorted to even blaming internet K-pop fans and “Anonymous” for spreading misinformation that contributed to unrest.
“The event shows how desperate the government had become,” said Gúzman. “They were willing to attack themselves publicly in an attempt to support their false narratives.”
“[The Ministry’s] explanation is vague and demonstrates the opacity of its ‘cyber-patrol’ campaign,” said María Paula Martínez, a journalist and consultant at FLIP. “They have been caught multiple times attaching “false” tags to news that was true, and we have no idea what they do with information they collect on those they consider critics.”
“After a cyber attack that never existed, an attack that they simulated for propaganda purposes,” wrote W Radio, a Colombian media company, in an editorial on the subject. “Intelligence agencies advanced "cyber patrols" to identify critical voices and accumulate information on these people -without a judicial order- taking persecutory powers that the law does not give them.”
The full text of the internal document written by the Ministry of Defense outlining their strategy to fake a cyberattack (in Spanish) can be found here.
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Spanish words of the week:
canserbero - Cerberus, the hound of Hades. More generally, a watchdog. Also: a Venezuelan rap legend who died too young!
peliculear - in Colombia, this means Netflix and chill