Salvadoran journalists’ phones hacked with spyware

According to a Canadian research institute, the cell phones of nearly three dozen journalists and activists in El Salvador, some of whom were investigating alleged state corruption, have been hacked since mid-2020 and implanted with sophisticated spyware typically available only to governments and law enforcement.

The alleged attacks were uncovered late last year by The Citizen Lab, which analyses malware at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, and came amid an increasingly hostile atmosphere in El Salvador for media and rights organizations under populist President Nayib Bukele. Amnesty International, a human-rights organization that worked with Citizen Lab on the inquiry, says it later corroborated a sampling of Citizen Lab’s results using its own technical arm.

Citizen Lab discovered evidence of intrusions on the phones between July 2020 and November 2021, according to the organization. It stated that it was unable to determine who was responsible for the deployment of the Israeli-designed spyware. The program, known as Pegasus, has been purchased by state players all around the world, with some of them using it to spy on journalists.

According to Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, “the heavy concentration on editors, reporters, and activists working inside that one Central American country hints to a local client with a specific interest in their activities.”

During the time of the purported infiltrations with Pegasus, El Faro reported extensively on scandals involving Bukele’s government, including allegations that he was negotiating a financial deal with El Salvador’s violent street gangs to reduce the homicide rate to boost popular support for the president’s New Ideas party.

Bukele, who spars frequently with the press, publicly condemned El Faro’s reporting on those purported talks as “ridiculous” and “false information” in a September 3, 2020, Twitter post.

Phone snooping isn’t new to El Salvador, according to Citizen Lab. It alleged in a 2020 report that El Salvador was among at least 25 countries using a bulk surveillance technology made by an Israeli company called Circles. The Circles technology differs from Pegasus in that it vacuums up data from the global phone network instead of planting spyware on specific devices. The report claimed the Circles system had been in operation in El Salvador since 2017. Circles could not immediately be reached for comment.

Sofia Medina, Bukele’s communications secretary, noted that his administration was not in power in 2017 and claimed, without providing evidence, that the alleged Pegasus attacks appeared to be a continuation of surveillance launched by an unknown “powerful group.”

Citizen Lab’s latest investigation in El Salvador was conducted as a collaboration with digital-rights group Access Now, with investigative assistance from human-rights groups Frontline Defenders, SocialTIC, and Fundacion Acceso.