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Big Brother in Venezuela

A newly released document from one of the country’s leading telecom providers, Telefónica, has given the world a glimpse into the encroachment its networks – and likely others – face from government entities.

The report, which was released in late June, details extensive wiretapping and censorship from the Venezuelan government, which according to Telefónica, was their obligation under “due diligence on human rights” to share. In this article, we’ll break the findings down, provide some context on the situation and explain what it means for telco providers – not just in Venezuela but all over the world.

According to the report, over 20% of Telefónica’s Venezuelan customers have had their data or connection compromised in some way. In 2021 1,584,547 phone lines were bugged and the metadata of 997,679 accounts was accessed by government entities. Unlike many other countries, Venezuela’s interception requests follow a government-managed process that bypasses the need for things like judicial orders. Requests are made by the country’s National Commission of Telecommunications on behalf of internal entities and face very little if any, scrutiny. In Telefónica’s case, the company received over 861,000 wiretapping solicitations in 2021, almost four times the 235,000 it reports getting in 2017. 

Unfortunately, Telefónica’s recent report hasn’t come as a surprise to many who have been watching Venezuela’s telecom market – and general state of affairs – over the past few years. The country has had its fair share of headlines, most notably surrounding claims of rights oppression and government corruption. But while some people may have already suspected it, the release of the report this June marked a symbolic moment in Venezuela’s fight against the suppression of speech and for privacy rights. It provided factual, direct confirmation of the suspicions that have run rampant all these years and shed a light on how far-reaching the issue really is. The true severity and impact of government surveillance over Venezuela’s telecommunications remain undefined. As only one of the country’s providers, Telefónica’s data only reflects a portion of the greater market. Taking other state-owned or influenced Call Service Providers into account could see the number of affected people jump to five million or even higher.

The Ethical Dilemma For Telecom Providers

This report raises several ethical concerns for telecom providers. The most obvious one is whether or not they should be cooperating with the Venezuelan government in light of its human rights record.

Another question is whether or not these companies are doing enough (or can do enough) to protect their customers’ data. What’s more, these companies are required by law to hand over user data to the government upon request. This means that even if they wanted to protect their customers, they would not be able to do so.

Due to the country’s poor human rights record, many businesses have pulled out of the country. This has affected the Venezuelan people, as it has made it harder for them to access essential goods and services. This puts telcos in a difficult situation as they want to protect their customers and provide a voice, as well as comply with government requests. The recent report to come out of Venezuela is just one example of the privacy breaches that occur in the telecommunications sector on a worldwide scale. It’s a reminder of how important it is for telecom providers to protect their customers’ data, as the individual’s voice still carries weight globally.