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Security Brief: SOUTHCOM Week of November 22, 2021

Week of Monday, November 22, 2021 | Issue 51

Jasmine Woolley, Benedetta Piva, SOUTHCOM Team


El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele[1]


Date: November 25, 2021

Location: El Salvador

Parties involved: El Salvadoran journalists; El Salvadoran civic activists; President Nayib Bukele; Christian Guevara, leader of the New Ideas Party; opposition politicians; Apple Inc.; the El Salvadoran government

The event: Apple Inc. issued approximately 23 spyware alerts to El Salvadoran journalists, activists, and opposition politicians after receiving credible evidence of State-sponsored hacking. The legislative leader of the New Ideas Party, Christian Guevara, responded to concerns on Twitter denying accusations of repression, political prisoners, and censorship.[2]

The implications:

  • State-sponsored hacking of journalists and those critical of the government will likely result in limited freedom of expression. Undermining democratic values will almost certainly lead to increased discontent with the government and more protests within El Salvador. The dismissal of democratic values and the potential for further hacks will likely result in anger and vulnerability. Citizens will likely question the conduct of their government, and this will very likely increase the risk of governmental retaliation by President Bukele.

  • A lack of formal response regarding State-sponsored hacking by the El Salvadoran government will likely result in criticism from Apple Inc. and El Salvadorans. This will very likely cause tensions between El Salvador and the technology sector, as Apple Inc. controls a large portion of the industry. Apple Inc. will very likely continue to issue threat alerts to El Salvadoran users when there is credible evidence of State-sponsored hacking. There is a roughly even chance that this tension will result in litigation by Apple Inc. as they are currently suing a spyware company used in another State-sponsored hacking event.

  • El Salvadorans will very likely request accountability and transparency from Bukele’s government. Protests will likely increase if the New Ideas Party avoids addressing the allegations. President Bukele’s government has previously banned mass gatherings, so it is almost certain that these protests would be illegal. Activists and journalists will likely be arrested or face violence from pro-government supporters as a result.

  • If activists and journalists continue to critique the El Salvadoran government for its alleged hacking, the local police force will likely be ordered to arrest them, which would further political and social tensions. Nongovernmental organizations and other countries, like the US, would very likely respond to the arrests. There is a roughly even chance of limited political dialogue between the New Ideas Party and external governments, as President Bukele is currently not commenting on allegations.

  • There will likely be legal repercussions for spyware companies that have been hired by State-sponsored hackers to target activists. This will very likely demonstrate to governments that activists should not be targeted for their beliefs.

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[1]Nayib Bukele” by PresidenciaSV, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

[2] Salvadoran journalists, activists report spyware alerts, AP News, November 2021, https://apnews.com/article/technology-business-caribbean-journalists-apple-inc-4e8eb7c742ef3c3bb36ecf81abaed519

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