ETECSA: From Surveillance to Indiscretion / Yoani Sánchez

ETECSA on-line phone number look-up screen

How many telephones do you think are listened into by the political police? I asked a man who once worked for State intelligence and who now is just one more private citizen. I ventured a three-digit number, a modest count that provoked gales of laughter across his wrinkled face. “Up to the mid-nineties about 21,000 lines were tapped, and now it must be double that with the addition of cellphones.” Another gentleman confirmed the number; his work had once been nosing around in other people’s conversations and installing microphones in the homes of dissidents, state officials and even inconvenient artists. I spent the day I heard such a bloated number feeling Big Brother’s eye on every tree, in every corner of my house, thinking about the indiscreet ear stationed in that little gadget with a screen and a keyboard that I carry in my pocket.

ETECSA, the only phone company in the country, uses its status as a state monopoly over communications to provide listening services to the Ministry of the Interior. This is not a delusion of my fevered brain. I have tried taking apart my phone, even removing the battery and leaving town; the “shadows” who keep watch over my house immediately get edgy. Sometimes, just to amuse myself — I freely admit it — I use my cellphone to invite several friends to participate in some presentation of an official book or an event organized by a State institution. The resulting operation would seem almost comical, if it weren’t for the evidence of the excessive resources — which should be contributing to the well-being of the people — that the government devotes to such things.

The watchers, however, can also become the watched. ETECSA employees leaked a data base through the alternative networks with many details about the country’s telephone numbers. Without a doubt a violation of the discretion any company should exercise over its information about its clients. But this has served to unmask the phone numbers of those who watch and denigrate us. From journalists working for the newspaper Granma, to members of the Central Committee, to senior police officials, their data appeared with their identity card numbers and even their home addresses. Brief acronyms show which phones are paid for by government agencies and which are private. Which exposes the official links of many who call themselves independent. For once, the detailed inventory they’ve made on every citizen has served for us to know about “them,” to know that those who are listening on the other end of line have names, not just pseudonyms. Now, anyone can call them, send them a message, something as short and direct as a text saying “Enough already!”

27 October 2011