#HackingTeam Leaks: Ecuador is Spending Millions on Malware, Pro-Government Trolls

Citizens demonstrate against President Correa in Quito. Photo by Agencia de Noticias ANDES via Flickr (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Citizens demonstrate against President Correa in Quito. Photo by Agencia de Noticias ANDES via Flickr (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Written by Samuel Woolley

Three Ecuadorian media sites experienced incapacitating online attacks last month, just minutes after they published evidence of an association between the Ecuadorian government and the surveillance technology company Hacking Team.

News and commentary websites including Plan V and Gkillcity, along with the media freedom group Fundación Milhojas reported that their sites suffered DDoS attacks shortly after they pointed to documents leaked from the massive hack of Hacking Team’s systems. According to the exposed emails, which have since been published on WikiLeaks, the Ecuadorian government paid over half a million dollars to the beleaguered Italian company for subscription to Remote Control System, a software package used for wide-ranging digital surveillance.

The Hacking Team scandal has implicated the governments of numerous countries across the globe in large-scale domestic digital surveillance. Several other nations in Latin America appear on clientele lists exposed in the hack as well, with Mexico leading as Hacking Team’s top client worldwide. According to Colombian news weekly Semana, the Ecuadorian government paid an Israeli firm $5.5 million for similar surveillance technology in 2012.

Many local and regional media outlets have covered the Correa government’s attempts to “wage a social media counterattack” against the opposition, citizens the president has named ‘defamers.’ Streams of pro-government propaganda, anti-opposition trolls, and hashtag spamming are all part of what journalists and online activists have deemed ‘Twitter Gate’,  a politically-motivated social media spin campaign dating back to 2012. Several prominent media voices in the country have pointed to the existence of government-sponsored troll centers and denounced their existence. Calls for clarity on government trolling campaigns from regime critic and former congressman Fernando Balda revealed information relating to numerous Twitter accounts allegedly built expressedly to support the current administration.

In July 2014, several vocal opponents of the Correa government had their Twitter accounts suspended. Multiple media outlets soon after reported on critics’ assertions that Juan Carlos Vascones, CEO of the Ecuadorian company Ximah Digital, had engineered the suspensions. Vascones reportedly has ties to the government and also serves as a representative for Twitter’s partner in Ecuador, IMSCorp. Both Vascones and Ximah Digital are associated with Ribeney SA, a private company that allegedly serves as a social media troll center in the capital city of Quito. Official documents prove that Ecuador’s Ministry of Strategic Sectors signed a social media strategy contract with Ribeney in 2013.

Media freedom advocates in the country see the attacks as part of a broader trend. Since 2013, critics of sitting president Rafael Correa have grown increasingly concerned with restrictions on Internet access, online surveillance, and government-sponsored social media propaganda. Censorship and threats directed at prominent online activists, bloggers, and opposition leaders along with periodic allegations of social media manipulation reflect Correa’s firm policies against reporting that is critical of the government. At the beginning of 2015, the president released Somos+, a website dedicated to directly responding to the government’s detractors on social media. The site invites Correa supporters to subscribe to an alert service that will notify them each time a Twitter user “smears” the government. It urges them to then respond and “support the Citizen’s Revolution.”

Correa’s administration is pursuing this agenda via multiple channels. Authorities have used intellectual property and criminal defamation laws to curb freedom of speech among journalists and detractors, and in recent years, several journalists and opposition members have been jailed for speaking out against the government.

According to researchers, the upswing in the Ecuadorian government use of social media to influence public conversations and media coverage correlates with a similar rise in government-driven trolling by governments worldwide. Media watchdogs, activists and academics have been closely watching the rise Twitter propaganda in Latin American countries including Mexico, Argentina, and Venezuela.

Recent reports suggest that the use of automated computer programs, often integral to both DDoS attacks and social media manipulation, continues to grow in Ecuador. Several have called for an end to political attempts at using social bot technology to manipulate public opinion, but for now there is no clear end in sight.


Samuel Woolley works with the Political Bots Project and the Digital Activism Research Project. He is a PhD student at the University of Washington in the US. 


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