Last summer, as protests gathered steam in Cuba, the internet shut down. The general consensus was that the government had instituted the blackout to smother protests. Whether it worked or not is still under question, but that hasn’t stopped internet censorship from spreading — and not just among undemocratic governments.
Even some of the purportedly freest countries on Earth are increasingly being tempted to use censorship, especially as a blunt tool for unplugging the internet for all. And increasingly, this is now giving way to the surgical precision of specialized, cheap, off-the-shelf products that can help trace and silence specific groups, messages, or individuals.
In this sense, Latin America is a perfect testing ground. It’s a region where the majority of states are technically democracies, but where governments slip towards authoritarian methods to “get things done” from time to time. Governments are using facial recognition technology that disproportionately hurts Black citizens or spying on opposition journalists, sometimes with the broad support of their own citizens.
But, as a global investigation undertaken by Rest of World revealed this week, the silencing goes beyond disruptive internet kill switches or the infamous, and expensive, Pegasus software used for years by governments across the world and Latin America. Today, far more sophisticated and affordable tools exist. These include deep packet inspection, known as DPI, which allows data and the way it moves on the internet to be read by an outside entity.
These rather shady-sounding tools often have legal and legitimate uses, either because of security concerns or because they can help ameliorate the efficiency of traffic. It’s what makes this sort of software so problematic; it is a neutral tool that could prevent child pornography or make your Netflix run faster. It can also shut down and silence a government’s political opposition.
The concern around these tools also goes beyond the usual suspects (like Cuba or Venezuela). As digital censorship becomes more accessible, more seemingly benign democracies with easy access to this software — and with legal measures to use them — may be tempted to deploy them improperly. Over the past three years, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, and Nicaragua have all passed laws that allow for digital censorship and surveillance in one form or another. It takes just one government official with an authoritarian bent to turn these systems into tools of censorship and repression.
It is not only the governed that are worried though. As government institutions like Mexico’s Secretariat of the Economy to Argentina’s Senate know, non-state actors are also showing how vulnerable even the most powerful states can be on the internet. In Brazil, a famous group of hackers worked their way into the Ministry of Health’s website a number of times. The Brazilian government was lucky; the group’s intent was simply to make a point about how vulnerable everybody really is on the internet:
“This site remains absolutely shit and nothing has been done to correct it,” the hackers wrote on the Ministry of Health’s site.