El Salvador denies responsibility for hacking journalists after report finds Pegasus spyware on their phones

The denial comes after a report from Access Now and Citizen Lab, two cybersecurity groups, which claimed that the espionage occurred between 2020 and 2021. The report did not specify who was responsible for the hack.

The report claims the hack targeted at least 22 journalists from El Faro – Salvador’s influential digital media outlet – as well as journalists from several other media.

Carlos Dada, the founder and director of El Faro, alleges that the Salvadoran government is responsible for the piracy.

“It didn’t surprise us to know that we were hacked, but the amount, frequency and duration of the hack did. Almost everyone in El Faro was hacked,” Dada said.

The Access Now and Citizen Lab report says the attacks began in July 2020 and continued until mid-November 2021.

Independent experts from Amnesty International have reviewed the findings of the report and agreed with its findings.

“The use of Pegasus for communications surveillance in El Salvador reveals a new threat to human rights in the country,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s director for the Americas, Thursday.

“The authorities must cease all efforts to restrict freedom of expression and conduct a thorough and impartial investigation to identify those responsible,” said Guevara-Rosas.

Julia Gavarrete was one of the journalists from El Faro whose phone was hacked. She said she was at a government press conference in 2020 when someone broke into her apartment and stole her computer and some personal belongings. She speculates that it might have something to do with hacking.

“You may feel fearful, but in the end you know that you are doing the things that are right and that you cannot give them the power to control your life,” Gavarrete told CNN.

Gavarrete said she cannot directly prove that the government was responsible for the attacks, but the timing of the attacks was remarkable because they seemed to fit perfectly with the stories she and her colleagues were pursuing at the time that could prove to be true. harmful to government.

Government denies espionage

President Nayib Bukele’s administration has dismissed the claim that it was behind the hack.

“The government of El Salvador does not have the resources or the licenses to use this type of software,” Sofía Medina, Bukele’s communications secretary, said in a statement. Medina said the government is not connected with the use of the Pegasus software, nor with the company that created it, an Israeli company called NSO Group.

Medina added that in November, she received an alert from Apple – like other members of the government – about a possible hacking of her cell phone.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele speaks at a press conference in San Salvador earlier this month.

“We have indications that members of the government were also victims of these attacks,” Medina said, adding that the government was already investigating the use of Pegasus and other systems to hack cell phones in the country.

CNN has asked the NSO Group for comment on the findings of the new investigation, but has yet to receive a direct response.

In a statement, the company said its systems are not currently active in El Salvador, but promised an investigation once it receives the phone numbers of these allegedly hacked phones to determine if there was had misuse of its systems in the past.

NSO Group has said that it only provides software and does not actively exploit the technology – nor does it have access to data collected afterwards. The company added that using its cybersecurity tools to monitor dissidents, activists and journalists is a serious misuse of the technology.

US blacklists Israeli company NSO Group for spyware use

On its website, NSO Group says it is only looking for customers who will use their product for “legal and necessary purposes of preventing and investigating terrorism and other serious crimes.”

The NSO Group says that for this reason it only licenses government intelligence and law enforcement agencies as a result of what it calls an investigative and licensing process. by the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

Responding to past allegations of misuse of its products, NSO Group told CNN in an email: “We regret to see, time and time again, how our company name is mentioned in information that does not have nothing to do with NSO, directly or indirectly. “

El Salvador is one of 25 countries whose governments have acquired surveillance systems from Circles, an affiliate of the NSO group, according to a study published in December 2020 by Citizen Lab.

According to this report, the system started operating in 2017 under a previous administration. CNN attempted to contact then-vice president Óscar Ortiz about the allegations, but no request for comment was received.

CNN’s David von Blohn and Hande Atay Alam contributed to this report.

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