By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN and FRANK BAJAK, Associated Press
MEXICO CITY (AP) – Dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in El Salvador have seen their cell phones repeatedly hacked with sophisticated spyware over the past year and a half, a watchdog from El Salvador said on Wednesday. Internet.
Reporting on its latest findings on the use of Israeli firm NSO Group spyware Pegasus, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab said it identified a Pegasus operator working almost exclusively in El Salvador in early 2020.
Although the researchers could not establish a conclusive link between the hacks and the government of El Salvador, the report says that “the high country-specific concentration of infections suggests that it is very likely.”
Sofia Medina, spokesperson for President Nayib Bukele, said in a statement that “El Salvador is in no way associated with Pegasus, nor is it a client of the NSO Group.” She said the government does not have licenses to use this type of software.
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The government is investigating the use of Pegasus to hack phones in El Salvador, she said.
Medina said that on November 23, she too received an alert from Apple, as other victims did saying she may be the victim of a state-sponsored hack. She said the Minister of Justice and Security of El Salvador received the same message that day. The Citizen Lab’s investigation did not include government officials, Medina said.
Bukele, a very popular president, spoke out against his detractors in El Salvador’s independent press, many of whom have been the targets of hacking attacks.
Citizen Lab conducted a forensic analysis of 37 devices after owners suspected they could be the target of a hack. Their analysis was reviewed by Amnesty International’s security laboratory.
John Scott-Railton, Principal Investigator at Citizen Lab and author of the report, said that “the aggressiveness and persistence of the hack was breathtaking.”
“I’ve seen a lot of Pegasus cases, but what was particularly troubling about this case was its juxtaposition with the physical threats and violent language against the media in El Salvador,” Scott-Railton said.
“It’s the sort of thing that you might not surprise in a dictatorship, but at least on paper El Salvador is a democracy,” he said.
While Citizen Lab does not blame the Bukele government’s mass hacking, Scott-Railton said all circumstantial evidence points in this direction. The victims are found almost exclusively in El Salvador.
The infrastructure used to infect Pegasus victims is global, so the command and control servers handling the surveillance in this case should not be local.
Twenty-two of the journalists targeted work for the independent news site El Faro, which during the period of the hack was working on articles related to the Bukele administration’s alleged deal with El Salvador’s street gangs to reduce the homicide rate and support Bukele’s party in midterm elections in return for benefits for gang leaders.
Bukele vehemently denied that there had been any negotiations with the gangs.
In December, the US Treasury appointed two officials in Bukele’s government and alleged, as El Faro had done, that the administration had struck a deal with the gangs.
El Faro wrote on Wednesday that “the iPhones of the editorial board, journalists and administrative staff were compromised, in some cases for a year. The scan identified a total of 226 intrusions gaining unrestricted access to messages, calls, and all content stored on the devices.
NSO, which was blacklisted by the US government last year, says it only sells spyware to legitimate government law enforcement and intelligence agencies approved by Israel’s Ministry of Justice. Defense for use against terrorists and criminals.
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman reported this story in Mexico City and AP writer Frank Bajak reported from Boston.
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