El Salvador journalists, activists hacked

MEXICO CITY (AP) – Dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in El Salvador had their mobilephones repeatedly hacked with sophisticated spyware over the past year and a half, an Internet watchdog said on Wednesday.

Reporting on its latest findings about use of the Israeli firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab said 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”.

Spokeswoman Sofía Medina 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 licences to use this type of software.

The government is investigating the use of Pegasus to hack phones in El Salvador, she said.

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. The Citizen Lab investigation did not include government officials, Medina said.

Bukele, a highly popular president, has railed against his critics in El Salvador’s independent press, many of whom were targetted in the hacking attacks.