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UW Center for Human Rights reports theft of data, equipment

Center for Human Rights

October 20, 2015

Sometime between October 15-18, the office of Dr. Angelina Godoy, Director of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, was broken into by unknown parties. Her desktop computer was stolen, as well as a hard drive containing about 90% of the information relating to our research in El Salvador. While we have backups of this information, what worries us most is not what we have lost but what someone else may have gained: the files include sensitive details of personal testimonies and pending investigations.

This could, of course, be an act of common crime. But we are concerned because it is also possible this was an act of retaliation for our work. There are a few elements that make this an unusual incident. First, there was no sign of forcible entry; the office was searched but its contents were treated carefully and the door was locked upon exit, characteristics which do not fit the pattern of opportunistic campus theft. Prof. Godoy’s office was the only one targeted, although it is located midway down a hallway of offices, all containing computers. The hard drive has no real resale value, so there seems no reason to take it unless the intention was to extract information. Lastly, the timing of this incident—in the wake of the recent publicity around our freedom of information lawsuit against the CIA regarding information on a suspected perpetrator of grave human rights violations in El Salvador—invites doubt as to potential motives.

We have contacted colleagues in El Salvador, many of whom have emphasized parallels between this incident and attacks Salvadoran human rights organizations have experienced in recent years. While we cannot rule out the possibility of this having been an incident of common crime, we are deeply concerned that this breach of information security may increase the vulnerability of Salvadoran human rights defenders with whom we work.

We are gratified by the response of the University of Washington authorities, who are investigating this as a potentially serious security issue and advising our Center on the adoption of new security measures in the future. We are also grateful for the messages we have received from supportive colleagues near and far. We resolve to redouble our commitment to promoting hands-on human rights education across the University of Washington, and to strengthen our partnerships with Salvadoran human rights defenders seeking truth, justice, and reparations for survivors of crimes against humanity.