Report: Dozens of El Salvador journalists, activists hacked

An web watchdog says dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in El Salvador had their cellphones repeatedly hacked with subtle spyware and adware over the previous yr and a half

MEXICO CITY — Dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in El Salvador had their cellphones repeatedly hacked with subtle spyware and adware over the previous yr and a half, an web watchdog mentioned Wednesday.

Reporting on its latest findings about use of the Israeli agency NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware and adware, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab mentioned it had recognized a Pegasus operator working nearly completely in El Salvador in early 2020.

While the researchers couldn’t conclusively link the hacks to El Salvador’s authorities, the report mentioned “the robust country-specific focus of the infections means that that is very probably.”

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Sofía Medina, spokeswoman for President Nayib Bukele, mentioned in a press release that “El Salvador isn’t any approach related to Pegasus and neither is a shopper of NSO Group.” She mentioned the federal government doesn’t have licenses to make use of this sort of software program.

The authorities is investigating the use of Pegasus to hack telephones in El Salvador, she mentioned.

Medina mentioned that on Nov. 23 she, too, acquired an alert from Apple as different victims did saying she is perhaps a sufferer of state-sponsored hacking. She mentioned El Salvador’s justice and safety minister acquired the identical message that day. The Citizen Lab investigation didn’t embody authorities officers, Medina mentioned.

Bukele, a extremely common president, has railed towards his critics in El Salvador’s impartial press, many of whom have been focused within the hacking assaults.

Citizen Lab carried out a forensic evaluation of 37 gadgets after the homeowners suspected they could possibly be the targets of hacking. Their evaluation was reviewed by Amnesty International’s Security Lab.

John Scott-Railton, senior researcher at Citizen Lab and an creator of the report, mentioned the “aggressiveness and persistence of the hacking was jaw-dropping.”

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“I’ve seen so much of Pegasus instances however what was particularly disturbing on this case was its juxtaposition with the bodily threats and violent language towards the media in El Salvador,” Scott-Railton mentioned.

“This is the sort of factor that maybe wouldn’t shock you in a dictatorship however at the least on paper El Salvador is a democracy,” he mentioned.

While Citizen Lab just isn’t blaming the mass hack on the Bukele authorities, Scott-Railton mentioned all of the circumstantial proof factors in that path. The victims are nearly completely in El Salvador.

The infrastructure used to contaminate Pegasus victims is international so the command-and-control servers managing the surveillance on this case wouldn’t be anticipated to be native.

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Bukele has vehemently denied there was any negotiation with the gangs.

In December, the U.S. Treasury designated two officers from Bukele’s authorities, and alleged as El Faro had that the administration made a cope with the gangs.

El Faro wrote Wednesday that “the iPhones of the editorial board, reporters, and administrative staff have been compromised, in some instances for so long as a yr. The evaluation recognized a complete of 226 intrusions gaining unfettered entry to messages, calls, and all content material saved on the gadgets.”

NSO, which was blacklisted by the U.S. authorities final yr, says it sells its spyware and adware solely to authentic authorities legislation enforcement and intelligence businesses vetted by Israel’s Defense Ministry to be used towards terrorists and criminals.


Associated Press author Christopher Sherman reported this story in Mexico City and AP author Frank Bajak reported from Boston.

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