In the bad old days of military rule, Chilean authorities would carefully watch public opinion by tapping telephones, intercepting mail and maintaining a network of informants throughout the country. A modern democratic government can keep its ear to the ground via polls and following the media, including blogs and social networking sites. But at what point does this monitoring become a violation of citizens’ rights, and what is an appropriate use of the information gathered?
The government of Sebastian Pinera is monitoring social networks such as Twitter and Facebook and using a private company for this purpose. A Santiago firm, BrandMetric, uses special software to gather and study the opinions posted online, an enormous task given that Chile has an estimated 7 million Facebook accounts and is one of the most wired countries in the region. The company’s general manager told Radio Cooperativa that it was not peering into people’s private lives but observing and reporting public sentiment on issues such as the HidroAysen power project. Government spokeswoman Ena Von Baer has defended the policy, pointing out that “public networks are public networks” and that officials are not doing anything other than learning Chileans’ views on public issues. According to press reports, BrandMetric is being paid the equivalent of more than $300,000 for its services.
An opposition politician, Senator Pedro Munoz, has asked the Comptroller General to declare this practice illegal, charging that it violates laws protecting personal data and individual privacy. Meanwhile, the issue has drawn the attention of a cyber hacking group calling itself Anonymous, which has launched previous attacks on web sites, including those of the U. S. Central Intelligence Agency, Visa and MasterCard. The group posted a video on You Tube showing a masked figure similar to the character in the 2006 dystopian film V is for Vendetta. Speaking through a voice synthesizer, the seated figure said the group would attack government web sites in Chile and Peru as part of a plan called Operacion Andes Libre.
“It is you, the rulers, who should fear us,” the figure said. “Not the other way around.”
According to James Bosworth, a guest blogger on the Christian Science Monitor’s web site, Chile and other Latin American nations may not be very well-prepared to handle a serious cyber attack. To date groups like Anonymous and LulzSec, which launched an attack on several Brazilian web sites, seem to pose more of an annoyance than a serious threat.