Data privacy

Police IT departments reportedly enlisted to fuel mass arrests in El Salvador

Untrained IT staff are being used to pass unvetted arrest tips on social media to police, according to Rest of World.
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· 3 min read

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Police IT workers have been conscripted to help fuel mass arrests in El Salvador amid President Nayib Bukele’s campaign to suppress violent gangs, according to a report from Rest of World.

The ongoing crackdown, which Bukele ordered after 87 people were killed in just three days in March, has resulted in over 55,000 arrests. At least 80 detainees have died in custody without ever being convicted of a crime, NBC reported, and judges are managing up to 300 defendants at a time. These arrests do not require warrants, the right to a legal defense is suspended, and human rights groups have denounced arbitrary detentions and civil liberties restrictions.

Salvadoran Police Workers’ Union representative Marvin Reyes told Rest of World that arrest tips were flowing through Facebook and Twitter accounts that are staffed by IT department workers and—at least officially—are meant to distribute rather than collect official information. Rest of World also spoke to three different human rights groups, each of which raised red flags about hundreds of arrests in the country arising from social media tips.

The groups also expressed concern that Salvadoran police are enlisting IT department workers to help them make arrest quotas by pursuing bogus leads. Unlike the staff that pick up phones at police departments, Reyes told the site, the IT workers handling social media tips aren’t trained to vet criminal allegations. Reuters reported that multiple officials confirmed that police supervisors have imposed daily arrest quotas based on dubious statistics about the number of active gang members throughout El Salvador.

Many of the tips are of questionable credibility, and some sources are likely bots. For example, Rest of World linked to one account exhorting police to round up bread sellers supposedly also selling drugs. That account, in the classic “Firstname Bunchofnumbers” format, appeared to have mostly tweeted pro-government opinions previously. One woman from Santa Ana told the site she believed one of her neighbors was arrested over romantic “jealousy.”

In another instance, according to Rest of World, the family member of a man arrested on suspicion of gang affiliation said the only evidence shown to them by police was a Facebook profile photo.

“This is very dangerous and risky,” Reyes told Rest of World. “The police should have an area where the people can digitally make an accusation and then verify if the information is true or not.”—TM

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Top insights for IT pros

From cybersecurity and big data to software development and gaming, IT Brew delivers the latest news and analysis of trends shaping the IT industry, like only The Brew can.