Cellphones of Salvadoran journalists have been targeted by Pegasus hundreds of times in two years, analysis finds

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Journalists investigating the Salvadoran government who worked on the Pandora Papers investigation were illegally monitored with spyware for more than a year, a cybersecurity analysis has revealed.

More than half of Salvadoran media staff El Faro had their cellphones attacked between July 2020 and November 2021, using spyware sold to governments, the analysis confirmed.

The University of Toronto’s cybersecurity lab, The Citizen Lab, and digital rights group Access Now found that 22 El Faro staff members had been targeted 226 times with Pegasus spyware, made by the Israeli company NSO Group. Those hacked included editors, journalists, board members and administrative staff.

El Faro, a media outlet that has partnered with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on the Pandora Papers and other investigations, reported that journalists’ cellphones were tapped as they covered and published major investigations. on government actions. The analysis was conducted between September and December 2021. Cybersecurity investigators discovered that the mobile phone of at least one journalist, Carlos Martínez, had been attacked even as they carried out the analysis.

In an editorial note to its sources, El Faro attributed responsibility for the espionage to the government of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele. “We understand that our journalism has put us on a collision course with a president who has successfully taken control – in some cases, illegally – of every institution of the state, who has destroyed every avenue for citizens to ‘to demand public information, and which discards any truth other than its own and any reality which differs from that which proclaims it sole interpreter of national history,’ the editorial states.

El Faro journalist Julia Gavarrete told the Committee to Protect Journalists: “My first impression was a shock; suspecting that you have been targeted is not the same as knowing. It hit me not only professionally, but also emotionally.

Bukele’s communications office told Reuters that El Salvador was not a client of NSO Group and that its government was investigating the alleged cyberattack, as some senior officials may also have been targeted.

In addition to El Faro, thirteen other Salvadoran journalists and activists were targeted, according to the analysis. Investigators said the “unprecedented” operation likely cost millions of dollars. Citizen Lab and Access Now said in a report that their findings had been independently verified by Amnesty International’s Security Lab.

NSO Group said it only sells Pegasus spyware to governments and with permission from Israel’s Defense Ministry, El Pais reported. The company told Forbidden Stories that the use of cyber tools to monitor dissidents and journalists is a misuse “of any technology” and should not be tolerated by the international community.

NSO Group insisted that Pegasus was developed to fight terrorism and organized crime. But journalistic investigations last year revealed how the software has been used by governments to spy on journalists and critics.

In November, journalists from six media outlets in El Salvador, including 12 El Faro staffers, received an email from Apple warning them that “state-sponsored attackers” could spy on them through their cellphones. Apple sent the notification the same day it sued the NSO Group.

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