LatinNews Daily - 31 January 2023

EL SALVADOR: Gov’t faces new spyware allegations

On 30 January El Salvadorean investigative media El Faro published an investigation which found that El Salvador’s police (PNC) had obtained equipment and software worth US$2.2m from Eyetech Solutions, a company belonging to Yaniv Zangilevitch, an Israeli friend of President Nayib Bukele.


The report by El Faro, which has broken key stories such as the alleged negotiations between the Bukele government and gangs back in 2020, comes just over a year after an investigation by Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary cybersecurity laboratory at Canada’s University of Toronto, and US-based digital civil rights NGO Access Now, revealed “extensive hacking of media and civil society in El Salvador” with Pegasus, a sophisticated spyware programme. This drew concerns from institutions such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The latest El Faro report will fuel existing fears regarding the deteriorating situation of press freedom and human rights in El Salvador, particularly following the state of exception in place since late March 2022 purportedly to target gangs, which suspends the right to private communications among other constitutional guarantees.

  • According to El Faro, in October 2020, the PNC approved the purchase of three surveillance tools from Eyetech Solutions, a transnational intermediary to Israeli spyware manufacturers. These include: a ‘Wave Guard Tracer’ or ‘Guardian’ to trace calls, SMS, data sessions, and even inactive phones; and a ‘GEOLOC’ or ‘IMSI catcher’ system - mobile antennas that intercept signals between SIM cards and phone towers to conduct physical surveillance, including from moving vehicles. The third tool is “Web Tangles,” which creates identity reports on the owners of social media accounts with facial recognition, GPS and WiFi signals, among other things.
  • El Faro highlights that in February 2022, the legislature, which is controlled by Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas (NI), approved reforms to the criminal procedure code (CPP) to legalise the judicial use of information obtained by such tools.
  • An expert from Ireland-based NGO Front Line Defenders, who requested anonymity told El Faro that “they are acquiring this technology without a regulatory framework,” making impossible any accountability for the use of these tools.
  • A blog post published on 27 January by US think-tank Wilson Center highlights concerns about the proliferation of spyware, a new form of electronic spying, and its implications for journalism and freedom of expression, citing El Salvador as the “most worrisome case in the region”.
  • The Wilson Center blog post cites Citizen Lab’s director, Ronald Deibert, as saying that 35 Salvadorean journalists and civil society figures, most of whom worked for El Faro, suffered more than 250 Pegasus attacks between July 2020 and November 2021. The same post also points out that it “is no surprise ‘El Faro’ was targeted” given the media outlet has uncovered “a range of questionable conduct by President Bukele”, including the alleged negotiations with gangs.
  • In its latest (May 2022) press freedom index, international NGO Reporters without Borders (RSF) highlighted El Salvador as registering one of the steepest declines in the region, for a second consecutive year to 112 out of 180 countries in 2022, down from 82 in 2021.
  • Press freedom groups also highlights as cause for concern a reform to the criminal code approved in April by the NI-controlled legislature that could lead to sentences of up to 15 years for journalists who report on gang violence.

Looking Ahead: With corruption concerns remaining rife – as illustrated recently in relation to legislation enabling the Bukele government to fast-track megaprojects, attacks on independent media and journalists critical of his administration look set to continue.

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