MEXICO CITY ( Associated Press) – Dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in El Salvador have had their cell phones repeatedly hacked over the past year and a half, an internet watchdog said Wednesday.
Reporting on its latest findings about Israeli firm NSO Group’s use of Pegasus spyware, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab said it had identified a Pegasus operator operating almost exclusively in El Salvador in early 2020.
Although the researchers could not conclusively link the hack to El Salvador’s government, the report noted that “the strong country-specific focus of the infection suggests that it is very likely.”
President Nayib Bukele’s spokeswoman Sofia Medina said in a statement that “El Salvador is neither affiliated with Pegasus nor a customer of the NSO Group.” He said that the government does not have a license to use such software.
He said the government was investigating the use of Pegasus to hack phones in El Salvador.
Medina said she also received an alert from Apple on November 23 after other victims said she may have been a victim of state-sponsored hacking. He said El Salvador’s Minister of Justice and Security had received the same message that day. Medina said government officials were not involved in Citizen Lab’s investigation.
The highly popular President Bukele has raided El Salvador’s free press against his critics, many of whom were targeted in hacking attacks.
Citizen Lab conducted a forensic analysis of 37 devices after the owners suspected they might have been the target of hacking. Amnesty International’s Security Lab reviewed their analysis.
“The aggression and persistence of the hacking was jaw-dropping,” said John Scott-Railton, senior researcher at Citizen Lab and author of the report.
Scott-Relton said, “I’ve seen a lot of Pegasus cases, but what was particularly disturbing in this case was its association with physical threats and violent language against the media in El Salvador.”
“It’s something that probably won’t surprise you in a dictatorship, but at least on paper El Salvador is a democracy,” he said.
While Citizen Lab isn’t accusing the Bukele government of the massive hack, Scott-Relton said all circumstantial evidence points in that direction. The victims are almost exclusively in El Salvador.
The infrastructure used to infect Pegasus victims is global so in this case the command-and-control server that manages surveillance would not be expected to be local.
Twenty-two journalists targeted work for the independent news site El Faro, which was working on stories related to the Bukele administration’s alleged deal-making with El Salvador’s street gangs during the hacking period to reduce the murder rate. and support Bukele’s party. Mid-term elections in return for benefits to gang leaders.
Bukele has vehemently denied that there were any talks with the gang.
In December, the US Treasury named two officials from Bukele’s government, and accused El Faro of accusing the administration of having struck a deal with gangs.
El Faro wrote on Wednesday that “the editorial board’s iPhones, journalists and the administrative team were compromised, in some cases for up to a year. The analysis identified a total of 226 intruders, who shared messages, calls and stored on devices.” Were getting access to all the content.
NSO, which was blacklisted by the US government last year, says it only sells its spyware to legitimate government law enforcement and intelligence agencies used by Israel’s Defense Ministry against terrorists and criminals. Is.
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman reported this story in Mexico City and Associated Press writer Frank Bajak reported from Boston.