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El Salvador journalists and activists hacked with Pegasus spyware.

Researchers from Citizen Lab have identified a Pegasus operator working almost exclusively in El Salvador following critical government reports published by an independent news site.

Citizen Lab has uncovered the use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to target journalists and human rights defenders in multiple countries. (Reuters)

Dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in El Salvador have had their cellphones repeatedly hacked with sophisticated spyware over the past year and a half.

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

Sofía Medina, spokeswoman 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 licenses to use this type of software.

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.

NSO, which was blacklisted by the US government last year, says it sells its spyware only to legitimate government law enforcement and intelligence agencies vetted by Israel’s Defense Ministry for use against terrorists and criminals.

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