NSO's Pegasus spyware found on phones of dozens of journalists in El Salvador - report

Targets included journalists at El Faro, GatoEncerrado, La Prensa Gráfica, Revista Digital Disruptiva, Diario El Mundo, El Diario de Hoy, and two independent journalists.

 A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

Israeli cyber company NSO’s Pegasus technology was allegedly used to spy on 35 journalists and civil society workers in El Salvador, according to a new report by The Citizen Lab and Access Now. 

The organizations said that they discovered 35 phones that had been infected with the spyware between July 2020 and November 2021. The groups said that they shared a sample of forensic data with Amnesty International’s Security Lab which independently confirmed the findings.

Targets included journalists at El Faro, GatoEncerrado, La Prensa Gráfica, Revista Digital Disruptiva, Diario El Mundo, El Diario de Hoy, and two independent journalists. Civil society targets included Fundación DTJ, Cristosal, and another NGO.

 El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele speaks during a deployment ceremony for the Territorial Control plan and army officers' graduation at the Captain Gerardo Barrios Military Academy in Antiguo Cuscatlan, El Salvador December 15, 2021.  (credit: REUTERS/JOSE CABEZAS) El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele speaks during a deployment ceremony for the Territorial Control plan and army officers' graduation at the Captain Gerardo Barrios Military Academy in Antiguo Cuscatlan, El Salvador December 15, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/JOSE CABEZAS)

The groups said that the hacking took place while the organizations were reporting on sensitive issues involving the administration of President Nayib Bukele, such as the government’s negotiation of a “pact” with the MS-13 gang for a reduction in violence and electoral support.

Bukele visited Israel in 2018 when he was the mayor of San Salvador and spent time at the Western Wall as well as with then-mayor of Jerusalem MK Nir Barkat who presented him with a pin of the logo of the Israeli capital city. 

The government in El Salvador denied its involvement and told the New York Times that it was “in no way related to Pegasus and is not a client of the NSO Group.”

The new report came two weeks after Polish media claimed that the country’s Central Anticorruption Bureau bought Pegasus spyware for hacking cellphones in 2017, not long after then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Prime Minister Beata Szydło. 

The Citizen Lab report is the latest allegation to rock NSO, which continues to claim that its product is only used to fight terrorists and drug rings. It has denied that its product is ever used illegally, other than in approximately five cases where it learned of abuses and cut off the clients in question from future use.

Despite NSO’s denials, the continued bad press alongside a ban imposed by the US Commerce Department, have sent the once powerful cyber company into a free fall.