Police State/Civil Liberties

Police in Latin America are turning activists’ phones against them

By Leo Schwartz,

Experts say that seized devices have become a trove of information for authorities cracking down on social movements and opposition leaders.

In late April, a wave of protests swept across Colombia, sparked by a proposed tax reform measure that many people worried would have disproportionately affected the country’s already struggling working class. Police soon began rounding up a number of the demonstrators, including one woman in the southwestern city of Cali. Authorities handcuffed her, took her cellphone, and then left her with a group of other detainees.

At some point, a police officer returned and offered to loosen the woman’s handcuffs. As they did so, the protestor realized the officer was pressing her fingertips to her phone in order to open it, she later told Fundación Karisma, a Colombian digital rights organization. When the authorities eventually gave the protester back their device, she noticed it was unlocked.

Human rights experts say incidents like these are on the rise in Latin America. Seized smartphones have become a trove of information for law enforcement officials hoping to build cases against social movements and opposition leaders. Until recently, most people had basic devices with just a few dozen contacts and little additional information of value. Now, the data on a person’s smartphone can often paint a full picture of their lives.

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