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Salvadoran journalists targeted by NSO Group spyware

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The infamous Israeli surveillance company NSO Group’s Pegasus The software appears to have been used again in an authoritarian spy campaign, despite recent reports that the company itself hemorrhage cash due to growing debt and growing international control. This time, Pegasus was reportedly used to infect the devices of 35 journalists and civil society representatives in El Salvador. in accordance with new investigation by Citizen Lab and Access Now.

The hacking operations, which took place between July 2020 and November 2021, appeared to target journalists working for at least six publications, some of whom were investigating allegations of government corruption. It is reported that 12 journalists from one edition of El Farro received “state-sponsored spyware.” anxiety from Apple informing them of spying attempts.

As a reminder, once a target is successfully infected, the Pegasus software allows the end user to view the target’s photos, documents, and even encrypted messages without the target’s knowledge. over it Over its 11-year history, NSO Group spyware has been repeatedly used to attack journalists, human rights activists defenders, childrenand even some political leaders… The company has shown a willingness to sell its services to authoritarian regimes, with previous reports highlighting Pegasus being used by actors in Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Mexico, and Hungary, among others.

NSO Group did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment, but said Reuters has a “zero tolerance” policy for misuse of its products. Be that as it may, surveillance of members of the press is considered misuse in the opinion of the company. Is it true or not means in practice, everything is completely different. While the NSO officially positions itself as a crime-fighting tool used by law enforcement to fight terrorism, its clients have been known to misuse the technology in the past.

The operation in El Salvador was especially distinguished by its scope and aggressiveness. According to Access Now, the nearly one-and-a-half-year surveillance campaign represents one of the most “aggressive and intense” known uses of the Pegasus to target journalists.

“I have seen many cases of Pegasus, but what was especially troubling in this case, was its association with physical threats and rude remarks against the media in El Salvador,” Citizen Lab researcher Scott-Railton told AP. “This is something that might not surprise you under a dictatorship, but at least on paper El Salvador is a democracy.”

While the Citizen Lab report notes that it is impossible to establish a direct link between the infected devices and the El Salvadorian government, the evidence seems to lean in that direction. According to Citizen Lab, most of the attacks happened around the same time the targets were working on projects that might interest the regime of President Naib Bukele.

V statement According to the Associated Press, a spokesman for Bukele denied the connection, stating, “El Salvador is in no way affiliated with Pegasus and is not a client of the NSO Group.” The official went on to say that the government was investigating the hacking attempts, and even stated that she herself received a warning from Apple informing her that she may have been the victim of a government-sponsored hacking attempt. (Scott-Railton pushed against the government response on Twitter).

News of the surveillance operation comes from Bukele, who some call “Millennial dictator”, is taking active steps to create an image of itself for foreign observers as a technologically friendly crypto-king of Latin America.

Bukele famously last year pushed controversial new law making bitcoin official legal tender and requiring businesses to use it for payments. The leader even talked about creating a literal bitcoin city powered by geothermal energy from the base of the volcano. The mostly tax-free zone will reportedly have a central plaza that looks like a bitcoin symbol from above and can serve as a hub for energy-intensive cryptocurrency mining.

International regulators have expressed anxiety on El Salvador’s adoption of Bitcoin, warning that it could make the country a breeding ground for money laundering and other financial crimes. Credit rating agency Fitch also raised concerns last year that the new law could effectively route bitcoin traffic through El Salvador, which could “increase the risks associated with proceeds from illicit activity flowing through El Salvador’s financial system,” Fitch said Reuters.

Both Citizen Lab and Access have released statements calling on international organizations to step up efforts to crack down on surveillance operations.

“The world is seeing an unprecedented surge in the use of state-sanctioned surveillance backed by private companies such as the NSO Group,” writes Access Now in statement… “The lack of responsibility for such egregious behavior on the part of governments and private companies allows a culture of surveillance to flourish and the erosion of human rights.”

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