Pegasus Spyware Deployed Against El Salvador Journalists and Activists

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The presidential spokesman denied involvement in the illegal surveillance and said officials were investigating the use of Israeli-made equipment.

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“It was jaw-droppingly aggressive and persistent hacking,” said Citizen Lab senior researcher John Scott-Railton.

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Among those affected were about 20 journalists from El Faro, a local media publication that exposed corruption scandals and clandestine talks over financial and prison benefits between the government of El Salvador and jailed gang leaders.

The group, which aims to protect Internet privacy and freedom of expression, said they could not establish who was responsible for the cellphone surveillance, but said the hacking campaign was based on government-led censorship and targeted harassment of independent media in the country. came against the background. Salvador.

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A spokesman for El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele denied any involvement in the illegal surveillance of journalists and said authorities were investigating the use of Pegasus in the country. It said the government was not a customer of the NSO Group and had not used its Pegasus spyware.

A spokesperson for NSO, which makes surveillance software, said the company provides it only to probing intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to fight criminals, terrorists and corruption, and not to monitor dissidents, activists and journalists. for. The company declined to say whether El Salvador was a customer. It said its contracts prohibit identifying customers.

El Faro director Carlos Dada said that the hacking against journalists and editors coincided with coverage on secret talks with gangs and corruption cases, two topics the US government is closely watching.

“Everything points to the government of El Salvador,” he said.

Following El Faro’s revelations of secret talks between the Salvadoran government and gangs, the US government imposed sanctions on senior Salvadoran officials involved in the negotiations, resulting in sex workers and cell phones being provided to jailed gang leaders.

According to forensic analysis, journalists from several other media outlets and activists of some organizations were also targeted.

The sanctions were the latest fall in bilateral ties as senior US officials criticized President Bukele’s efforts to consolidate power by undermining institutions and the rule of law. In recent decades, widespread violence and endemic poverty in the Central American country has led to mass migration to the US

Access Now, a US-based digital-rights organization, said the El Salvador case was one of the worst analyzed. According to forensic analysis, Mr. Dada’s phone was hacked a dozen times over a total of 160 days.

According to Citizen Lab, NSO Group software has reportedly been used on people around the world, including targets in the UK, India, South Africa, Belgium, France, Uganda, Mexico and Morocco. NSO said it sells its software to governments on the condition that they use it only to target spies, criminals and terrorists, and not to track critics.

Last year the US government blacklisted the company and barred it from receiving certain US technology because of allegations of improper use of Pegasus. According to a person familiar with the matter, NSO is currently exploring the possibility of a possible sale or closure of its spyware unit.

Apple Inc.

It sued NSO in late November, alleging that the company misused its products and services. NSO said in response to the lawsuit that its technologies saved thousands of lives around the world and that pedophiles and terrorists could technically work safely.

At the same time, Apple alerted several employees of El Faro that state-sponsored attackers could target their iPhones to access sensitive data, communications or even cameras and microphones.

“It’s like having someone deep inside your personal life,” said El Faro investigative reporter Carlos Martínez, whose iPhone, according to forensic analysis, was hacked for more than 260 days.

Mr Dada said Apple’s alert prompted El Faro to request forensic analysis by groups that have been tracking NSO’s activities for years.

He said the cellphone hacking was part of a government harassment campaign against El Faro. In 2020, Mr Bukele accused the news site of money laundering on national television. It is currently undergoing four separate financial audits. Earlier last year the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which investigates human rights violations, ruled that El Salvador’s government must take measures to “protect the life and personal integrity” of El Faro’s personnel.

Mr Bukele’s spokesman said senior officials, including himself and the justice minister, had also been warned by Apple that their cellphones had been targeted.

She said that by only investigating cases related to journalists and social workers and not hacking cellphones belonging to government officials, Citizen Lab and other organizations are “supporting the agenda of the groups behind the attacks.”

Mr Scott-Railton said: “If I were a member of the government of El Salvador and I received that Apple notification, I would ask myself if my own government hacked me.”

Write Jose de Cordoba at [email protected] and Santiago Perez at [email protected]

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