NSO Group Spyware Targeted Dozens of Reporters in El Salvador

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israeli spyware Developer NSO Group has long claimed a laudable denial when it comes to the abuse of its powerful targeted surveillance tools. Yet despite protests against it – and scrutiny from tech companies and regulators alike – the abuse continues. The latest revelation comes from El Salvador, where NSO’s Pegasus malware was found on 37 devices belonging to 35 journalists and activists, as recently as November last year.

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those findings, jointly published By A consortium of digital rights organizations shows that despite NSO Group’s insistence that its products be used to track criminals and terrorists, governments continue to deploy them against innocent targets—and that NSO has It has done very little to rein in its customers.

23 of the infected devices belonged to journalists affiliated with the Salvadoran news site El Faro. Three other compromised devices belong to people associated with the publication. closed cat, Both have published reporting critical of the government of El Salvador and faced retaliation, such as being barred from various government press conferences and, El Faro said, subjected to aggressive financial audits and allegations of tax evasion. He is going. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and his administration have been widely hostile to the media; In early 2021, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights given precautionary measures 34 El Faro journalists were considered at risk of human rights violations as a result of their work.

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Other confirmed targets of the Pegasus hacking spree include devices linked to Salvadoran publications. the printing press, disruptive digital magazine, today’s diary, And newspaper el mundo, plus two independent journalists. The campaign also affected instruments associated with local NGOs, including Cristosal, Fundación Democracia and Transparencia y Justicia. Specifically, the researchers found that some devices were infected with Pegasus more than 40 times. el faro said On November 23, Apple alerted 12 of its journalists to the possibility that their devices had been targeted with Pegasus spyware. The Journalists’ Union of El Salvador announced a day later that a total of 23 journalists from different newsrooms had received the same information. Others who received notifications targeting Apple’s Pegasus include MP Johnny Wright Soul and San Salvador local councilor Hector Silva.

“It was quite shocking, to be honest, to see the scale and persistence of infections in the case of one person being targeted multiple times,” says Natalia Krapiva, technical legal counsel for Access Now, one of the organizations investigating the campaign. Seeing it.” “Technology gives you access to everything you do on your phone, and we have heard NSOs say several times that they will take action to enforce human rights policies. Governments are also involved in the purchase and use of this spyware. They are not becoming transparent. They should be accountable. Monitoring of civil societies with these tools should not be the norm.”

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The NSO group did not return a request to Wired for comment about the findings. Pegasus, which NSO developed for both Apple’s iOS mobile operating system and Google’s Android OS, can be used to track the location of a victim device, retrieve data such as text messages and email, activate the microphone and camera. , and much more can be done.

The consortium of research organizations also includes Front Line Defenders, University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, Amnesty International, Fundación Accesso and Social TIC. This is the first time the use of pegasus has been confirmed in El Salvador, and it is one of the first examples in South and Central America in general. international investigator found in 2017 That the Mexican government was using Pegasus. The group does not attribute the Salvadoran hacking to any specific actor, but notes that the NSO group claims its clients are governments and their law enforcement agencies. Researchers at Citizen Lab found evidence that the campaign operator was focused solely on domestic targets in El Salvador.

“If Mexico was dramatic, it’s jaw-dropping,” says Citizen Lab senior researcher John Scott-Railton, “because what we found was an incredibly broad, pervasive and aggressive targeting of the media in El Salvador.” And that targeting is combined with other threats against the media out there. ,

AccessNow’s Krapiva points out that the timing of the campaign in El Salvador underscores how hollow the NSO Group’s defense of its products has been. In July, for example, Amnesty International and other organizations published comprehensive findings known as the Pegasus Project, detailing judicial evidence That NSO spyware was being misused by governments around the world and that there may be other NSO customers, including Hungary, India, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The findings prompted many condemnations of the use of Pegasus or other aggressive spyware and calls for a ban on the use of NSO tools. In early November when Salvadoran targeting was still underway, the United States Treasury placed the NSO Group. on its unit list,

NSO has also faced significant other pushback, including lawsuits by Apple and Meta-owned secure messaging platform WhatsApp.

“NSO says it’s like a car dealer, it just sells cars,” says Scott-Railton of Citizen Lab. “But in the case of El Salvador, if in fact it was the government of El Salvador, you have a pretty good idea of ​​what you’re dealing with. And in general it shows that if you think this The kind of thing that has only happened in dictatorships, then Pegasus is gas on authoritarian fire.”

NSO Group has reportedly faltered in recent months as backlash against it mounts, but researchers stress that the company is far from the only commodity spyware maker serving counterfeit customers.

“It’s important,” says AccessNow’s Krapiva. “There needs to be accountability and consequences for the companies providing these technologies and the governments that use them.”


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