Fri. Jan 21st, 2022

The cell phones of dozens of journalists and activists in El Salvador have been hacked and implanted with Israeli-made products since at least early 2020. Pegasus spyware typically only available to governments and law enforcement, according to a new report by a watchdog group.

The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab said Wednesday it has identified a spyware operator working exclusively in El Salvador and targeting journalists and activists, many of whom are investigating alleged state corruption.

While the researchers could not finally determine that the hacks came from the El Salvador government, the report said “the strong country-specific focus of the infections suggests that it is very likely”.

The government of President Nayib Bukele has denied any involvement with the Pegasus technology, saying it is not a customer of its manufacturer, the Israeli firm NSO Group.

Pegasus technology enables users to steal encrypted messages, photos, contacts, documents and other sensitive information from infected phones without users’ knowledge. It can apparently also turn cell phones into eavesdropping devices by silently activating their cameras and microphones.

Sofia Medina, a spokeswoman for the president, told the Associated Press that the government was investigating the reported burglary. She said she and at least two other government officials had received warnings from technology company Apple in recent months warning that they might have been victims of state-sponsored burglary themselves.

In turn, the NSO group, which was blacklisted by the US government last year, says it only sells its spyware to legitimate government law enforcement and intelligence agencies selected by Israel’s Ministry of Defense.

“Drop the hood”

Citizen Lab conducted a forensic analysis of 37 devices after the owners – members of three human rights groups, six news publications and an independent journalist – reportedly suspected they could be the targets of burglary.

The investigation was conducted by Internet rights group Access Now and reviewed by Amnesty International’s Security Lab.

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab and author of the report, called the “aggression and perseverance” of the burglary “jaw-dropping.”

He told AP that the burglary was particularly worrying given Bukele’s increasingly hostile approach to independent media in the country, who regularly accuse the president of publishing falsehoods.

“I’ve seen a lot of Pegasus cases, but what was particularly disturbing in this case was its composition with the physical threats and violent language used against the media in El Salvador,” Scott-Railton said.

“This is the kind of thing that might not surprise you in a dictatorship, but at least on paper, El Salvador is a democracy,” he said.

Journalists targeted

Of the organizations targeted, the online news site El Faro was hit the hardest.

President of El Salvador, Nayib BukelePresident of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele [File: Bloomberg]

Citizen Lab researchers said they found brightening traces of spyware infections on the cell phones of 22 reporters, editors and administrative staff – more than two-thirds of the company’s staff – and evidence that data was stolen from many of those devices, including a few that extracted several gigabytes of material.

The report said El Faro had been under constant surveillance for at least 17 months – between 29 June 2020 and 23 November 2021 – with editor-in-chief Oscar Martinez’s phone infiltrated at least 42 times.

During the time of the alleged infiltrations with Pegasus, El Faro reported extensively on scandals involving Bukele’s government, including allegations that he was negotiating a financial deal with the country’s violent street gangs to reduce the murder rate. to boost popular support for his New Ideas party.

Prior to the most recent findings, Citizen Lab previously exposed the use of Pegasus to target journalists, human rights defenders, diplomats and dissidents over the past few years. Targets were from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and the USA.

appeal sued the NSO group in November tried to prevent its software from compromising its operating systems. Facebook sued the company in 2019, claiming it was hacking its WhatsApp messenger app.

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