The mobile phones of nearly three dozen journalists and activists from The Savior, several of those investigating alleged State corruption, have been hacked since mid-2020 and have been implanted with a sophisticated spyware, as a Canadian institute has discovered.
The alleged hacks, which occurred in an increasingly hostile environment in El Salvador for media and human rights organizations under the government of President Nayib Bukele, were discovered late last year by The Citizen Lab, which studies the software. spy at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
Amnesty International, which collaborated with Citizen Lab on the investigation, says it subsequently confirmed a sample of the Canadian research institute’s findings through its own technology branch.
Citizen Lab said it found evidence of hacks on the phones that occurred between July 2020 and November 2021. It said it could not identify who was responsible for the deployment of Israel-designed spyware normally only available to governments and law enforcement agencies.
Known as Pegasus, the software has been acquired by state officials around the world, some of whom have used the tool to monitor journalists.
In the El Salvador attack, the strong focus on editors, reporters and activists working within that Central American country is targeting a local client with a particular interest in their activities, said Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab.
“I can’t think of a case where the almost exclusive target of Pegasus in one country didn’t end up being a user in that country,” Scott-Railton said.
Citizen Lab released a report on its findings on Wednesday.
In a statement to Reuters, Bukele’s communications office said the government of El Salvador was not a client of NSO Group Technologies, the company that developed Pegasus. He said the administration is investigating the alleged hack and had information that the phones of some high-level officials may also have been infiltrated.
“We have indications that we, government officials, are also being the victims of attacks,” says the text.
Pegasus allows the stealing of encrypted messages, photos, contacts, documents and other sensitive information from infected phones without users knowing. It can also turn phones into spying devices by silently activating its cameras and microphones, according to product manuals reviewed by Reuters.
NSO declined to comment on whether El Salvador was a Pegasus customer.
The company said in a statement that it only sells its products to “vetted and legitimate” law enforcement and intelligence agencies to fight crime and is not involved in surveillance operations.
NSO said it has a “zero tolerance” policy for the misuse of its spyware for activities such as monitoring dissidents, activists and journalists and that it has terminated contracts with some clients who have done so.
Citizen Lab investigators stated that they began a forensic analysis of El Salvador’s phones in September, after being contacted by two journalists from that country who suspected their devices could be compromised.
They claimed that they eventually found evidence that spyware had been placed on a total of 37 phones belonging to three human rights groups, six news publications and one freelance journalist.
The El Faro news site was the most affected. Citizen Lab said it found telltale traces of spyware infections on the mobile phones of 22 reporters, editors and clerks – more than two-thirds of the person – and evidence that data had been stolen from many of those devices, including several gigabytes.
El Faro was under constant surveillance for at least 17 months, between June 29, 2020 and November 23, 2021, with the phone number of the editor-in-chief, Óscar Martínez, infiltrated at least 42 times, said Citizen Lab.
“It’s hard for me to think or conclude anything other than the government of El Salvador” behind the alleged attacks, Martinez said. “It is clear that there is a radical interest in understanding what El Faro is doing,” he added.
During the time of the alleged Pegasus infiltrations, El Faro reported on scandals related to the Bukele government, including allegations that it was negotiating an agreement with violent street gangs to reduce the murder rate in order to boost popular support for the party. New Ideas, from the president.
Bukele, who frequently argues with the press, publicly condemned El Faro’s information about these alleged conversations as “ridiculous” and “false information” on his Twitter account on September 3, 2020.
Telephone espionage is not new in El Salvador, according to Citizen Lab.
In a 2020 report, El Salvador was claimed to be one of 25 countries using mass surveillance technology manufactured by an Israeli company called Circles, whose technology differs from Pegasus in that it collects data from the global telephone network rather than install ” spyware ”on specific devices.
The report claimed that the Circles system had been in operation in El Salvador since 2017. Circles could not be immediately reached for comment.
Sofía Medina, Bukele’s Communications Secretary, noted that the current administration was not in power in 2017 and claimed, without providing evidence, that the alleged Pegasus attacks appeared to be a continuation of surveillance launched by an unknown “powerful group” unknown. .
The latest Citizen Lab research in El Salvador was carried out in collaboration with digital rights group Acces Now, with research assistance from human rights groups Frontline Defenders, SociaTIC and Fundación Acceso.