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Bukele Draws Backlash for Alleged Surveillance Tactics

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Crypto Briefing

Sat, Jan 15, 2022

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Reports emerged this week that the government of El Salvador may be surveilling journalists using the spyware "Pegasus." Crypto community members are now criticizing this and other abuses by the government and its president, Nayib Bukele.

The El Salvador government, headed by pro- Bitcoin President Nayib Bukele, may be surveilling journalists based on recent reports.

During an investigation in September 2021, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found that 35 journalists and citizens (with 37 mobile devices) had been infected by the spyware “Pegasus.” The spyware was used against several El Salvador news outlets, including GatoEncerrado, La Prensa Gráfica, Revista Digital Disruptiva, Diario El Mundo, El Diario de Hoy, and, most prominently, El Faro.

The government of El Salvador is believed to be behind this activity.

El Faro founding director Carlos Dada says that “everything points to the fact that it’s the Salvadoran government who is responsible.” Citizen Lab, meanwhile, says that there is “circumstantial evidence pointing to a strong El Salvador government nexus.” This reasoning is based on the fact that Pegasus is created by the Israeli technology firm NSO Group.

Combined with the fact that El Salvador has blocked some of the above news organizations from press conferences and threatened them with legal infractions, the El Salvadoran government has demonstrated a willingness to harsh tactics against those groups.

For its part, the El Salvador government has denied any role in the surveillance, stating that it “is in no way related to Pegasus and is not a client of the NSO Group.” Furthermore, it says that government officials themselves have been targeted.

Still, Pegasus is generally treated as malware, not just by rights watchdogs such as Amnesty International and Access Now but also by affected companies such as Apple and WhatsApp. News that El Salvador may be monitoring journalists has raised concerns in the crypto community, as the country has become well known for embracing Bitcoin by approving it as legal tender.

Cas Piancey , co-host of the podcast Crypto Critics’ Corner, noted the irony in Bitcoiners advocating transparency and freedom “but totally support[ing] a Central American dictator who plants bugs on journalists he doesn’t like.” Indeed, Bukele’s strong-arm tactics—such as his armed occupation of Congress and his attempts to dismiss aging judges —were widely known as the country adopted cryptocurrency last year.

The news comes days after others have questioned whether El Salvador’s investment in Bitcoin will maintain its monetary value.

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