Researchers from Citizen Lab have identified a Pegasus operator working almost exclusively in El Salvador following critical government reports published by an independent news site.
Dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in El Salvador have had their cellphones repeatedly hacked with sophisticated spyware over the past year and a half.
Reporting on its latest findings about use of the Israeli firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab said on Wednesday that it had identified a Pegasus operator working almost exclusively in El Salvador in early 2020.
While the researchers could not conclusively link the hacks to El Salvador’s government, the report said “the strong country-specific focus of the infections suggests that this is very likely.”
Sofía Medina, spokeswoman for President Nayib Bukele, said in a statement that “El Salvador is no way associated with Pegasus and nor is a client of NSO Group.” She said the government does not have licenses to use this type of software.
Medina said that on November 23 she, too, received an alert from Apple as other victims did saying she might be a victim of state-sponsored hacking. She said El Salvador’s justice and security minister received the same message that day.
NSO, which was blacklisted by the US government last year, says it sells its spyware only to legitimate government law enforcement and intelligence agencies vetted by Israel’s Defense Ministry for use against terrorists and criminals.
'Aggressiveness was jaw-dropping'
Citizen Lab has uncovered the use of Pegasus to target journalists, human rights defenders, diplomats and dissidents during the past several years. Targets have been from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and the United States.
While Citizen Lab is not blaming the mass hack in El Salvador on the Bukele government, senior researcher at the academic research lab Scott-Railton said all the circumstantial evidence points in that direction. The victims are almost exclusively in El Salvador.
Scott-Railton said the “aggressiveness and persistence of the hacking was jaw-dropping.”
“I’ve seen a lot of Pegasus cases but what was especially disturbing in this case was its juxtaposition with the physical threats and violent language against the media in El Salvador,” Scott-Railton said.
Twenty-two of those targeted work for the independent news site El Faro, which during the period of hacking was working on stories related to the Bukele administration’s alleged deal-making with El Salvador’s street gangs to lower the homicide rate and support Bukele’s party in mid-term elections in exchange for benefits to gang leaders.
Julia Navarrete, one of the El Faro journalist's whose phone was hacked, said on Wednesday that this software doesn't just allow someone to listen in all calls, it is “entered in the device and extracts all of the information.”
Apple sued NSO in November, trying to stop its software from compromising its operating systems. Facebook sued the company in 2019, alleging that it was hacking its WhatsApp messenger app.