New reporting has found strong evidence Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has sought to undermine freedom of speech in the Central American nation. According to a joint investigation by Salvadoran news outlet El Faro, Toronto-based Citizen Lab and digital rights nonprofit Access Now, the cell phones of at least 22 of El Faro’s journalists were infected with spyware known as Pegasus over the past two years. Other journalists and human rights activists were also targeted. Pegasus has previously been used against journalists or other so-called undesirables in nations including India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia.
The report should trigger serious reflection among Bitcoiners. While Bukele’s move to adopt bitcoin as an alternative to the U.S. dollar in El Salvador has great potential for freeing the developing world from the yoke of the global financial establishment, his authoritarian behavior here is anathema to the cyber-libertarian ideals that underpin cryptocurrency.
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Pegasus, produced by Israeli firm NSO Group, allows not just the monitoring of a victim’s communications but deeper access to device data. The El Faro investigation, whose findings were certified by Amnesty International, found data had been exfiltrated from the devices of at least 11 journalists. The tool has been previously used in acts of violent suppression: NSO and Pegasus have been linked to the murders of Mexican opposition journalist Cecilio Pineda Birto and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Up to this point, I’ve been skeptical about attempts to paint Bukele as a nascent dictator. Much of the anti-Bukele rhetoric in the Anglophone press has focused on his replacement of judges and one theatrical display of military strength, alongside derogatory statements from developed-world governments. These struck me as hard to take at face value given El Salvador’s extremely complex modern political history, entrenched corruption and the culpability of countries like the United States in fomenting the very instability that might have made strong-arm tactics necessary for Bukele’s reformist agenda.
But spying on opposition journalists is several orders of magnitude more reprehensible to me than any other claims made about Bukele so far. I am admittedly biased, but the suppression of information is a fundamental attack on the good and fair functioning of any society.
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This puts Bitcoiners in particular in a bind. With its roots in crypto-anarchist and digital libertarian ideals, the Bitcoin community is ideologically hostile to both state power and digital surveillance. This sentiment is so strong that many in the community bristled at a provision in El Salvador’s law that seemed to mandate the acceptance of bitcoin by retailers. The new report should offend those critics at least as deeply.
It’s notable that this is not the first time the cryptocurrency industry has been asked to pass judgment on the ethics of state-backed digital espionage. After Coinbase acquired a blockchain analytics company called Neutrino in early 2019, myself and other investigators and reporters highlighted the company’s deep ties to a black-hat organization known as Hacking Team. Hacking Team had sold invasive spyware to repressive regimes, which used the tools to target dissidents and journalists. After fierce backlash from the crypto community, Coinbase ultimately fired former Hacking Team members from Neutrino, and admitted the acquisition had been a failure of due diligence.
The decision facing bitcoin advocates now may be more complex. El Salvador is a valuable testing ground for the digital currency, but if El Faro’s findings are true it seems clear the Bukele administration can no longer be considered a trustworthy partner. Beyond the simple ethics of supporting a regime that seeks antidemocratic methods of repressing its critics, the bitcoin community must be vigilant about public perception, given the continued widespread hostility towards cryptocurrency. A leader willing to use black-ops spyware against his own citizens is not an acceptable figurehead for spreading bitcoin adoption.
My sympathies here lie almost entirely with the journalists who have been targeted and harassed for attempting to inform Salvadorans about their own leadership. But it’s also deeply personally disappointing: I was hoping to visit El Salvador at some point this year and report on the status of the bitcoin project there. That now appears considerably less feasible because it would potentially expose me, and any other international journalists who travel there, to ongoing surveillance by Nayib Bukele and his allies.