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Journalists in El Salvador Targeted With Spyware Intended for Criminals

Journalists in El Salvador Targeted With Spyware Intended for Criminals
Written by publishing team

El Faro, El Salvador’s leading news outlet, said on Wednesday that the phones of the majority of its employees had been hacked with the Pegasus spyware, which governments have used to monitor human rights activists, journalists and dissidents.

The revelation came just months after the US government blacklisted the Israeli company that produces Pegasus, NSO Group, in an effort to curb the unregulated global market in spyware.

According to Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School and Access Now, two cybersecurity monitors who analyzed the phones of El Faro employees, the spyware was installed on the phones of 22 reporters, editors and other employees between July 2020 and November 2021.

During that time, El Faro was investigating the Salvadoran government’s secret ties with the country’s gangs and corruption scandals. The government denied any links to local gangs.

“It is completely unacceptable to spy on journalists,” said Carlos Dada, founder and director of El Faro. “It puts our resources at risk, limits our work, and it also puts our families at risk.”

Cybersecurity watchdogs said 13 journalists from other Salvadoran news organizations were also targeted. An El Faro journalist’s phone has been re-infected with the spyware more than 40 times, the most persistent attempt to hack by Pegasus that has yet to be discovered.

“The tentacles of the NSO group continue to spread around the world, crushing the privacy and rights of journalists and activists in limbo,” said Angela Alarcon, who campaigns around Latin America and the Caribbean at Access Now. “The revelation that Pegasus spyware was being used unfairly in El Salvador may not come as a complete surprise, but there is nothing quite like our outrage.”

It remains unclear who was using NSO’s surveillance technology to spy on journalists. The government of El Salvador has denied responsibility, and a spokesperson for the NSO Group did not say whether the Pegasus spyware had been provided to El Salvador’s governments, past or present.

“The government of El Salvador is in no way associated with Pegasus and is not a client of the NSO Group,” Sofia Medina, Director of Communications for El Salvador’s President Najib Bukele, said in a statement.

“The government of El Salvador is investigating the possible use of Pegasus,” the statement added, before going on to describe a similar hacking attempt targeting Salvadoran government officials.

The development is the latest scandal to rock NSO Group, a prized Israeli technology company whose spyware has long been under scrutiny for its ability to capture all activity on a smartphone — including user keystrokes, location data, audio and video recordings, photos, contacts, and encrypted information — and to growing Allegations of misuse by repressive governments.

In August, it was revealed that Pegasus had been secretly installed on the smartphones of at least 36 journalists, activists and businessmen around the world, including those close to the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In Mexico, it has been used against influential journalists and others.

The Biden administration blacklisted the NSO Group in November, stating that the company knowingly supplied spyware that foreign governments used to “maliciously target” the phones of human rights activists, journalists and others.

This action was a notable break with Israel, an American ally, as the company is one of the most successful technology companies in Israel and operates under the direct control of the Israeli government.

After the US government blacklisted NSO Group, the company promised that Pegasus is only licensed to governments with good human rights records.

But in December it was announced that the iPhones of 11 US embassy employees working in Uganda had been hacked using the Pegasus spyware.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the NSO Group, who declined to be named, confirmed that the company only provides its software to legitimate intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight criminals and terrorists.

The spokesperson added that the company does not know who its customers are, but that NSO is working to ensure that its tools are used only for authorized purposes.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense is responsible for regulating and approving any export of NSO programs. The Israeli army has also been criticized for its violations of human rights at home and abroad.

While it remains unclear which entity targeted Salvadoran journalists, El Salvador has been criticized for intimidation and censorship of local media.

El Salvador’s president, Mr. Bukele, has been heavily criticized by the US government and rights groups for using the military to interfere with the legislature and suspend Supreme Court justices and the attorney general.

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