El Salvador, in Brief: An external analysis confirmed that at least 22 staff members at El Faro were hacked during the past two years using the Israeli spyware Pegasus, which is allegedly only sold to governments. The hacks —totaling 226 intrusions— matched the timeline of key El Faro investigations into corruption in the Bukele administration.
From June 2020 to November 2021, two-thirds of El Faro staff were infected with the spyware Pegasus, according to a technical analysis led by The Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary cybersecurity laboratory at the University of Toronto, in collaboration with Access Now. The surveillance campaign targeted the board of directors, editorial board, administrators, and reporters, including two members of El Faro English.
“This is one of the most shocking and obsessive cases of targeting that we have investigated,” The Citizen Lab’s senior researcher John Scott-Railton told El Faro.
The report documented increased espionage activity as El Faro worked on some of its most groundbreaking investigations, including the revelations in September 2020 of secret negotiations between Bukele’s government and MS-13, the existence of a parallel cabinet of Venezuelan advisors with ties to Juan Guaidó, and several corruption cases in the government’s pandemic response.
“According to the expert reports we’ve reviewed, everything points to the fact that it’s the Salvadoran government who is responsible for these infections, that it’s using the software to spy and to illegally obtain information kept on journalists’ phones,” said El Faro’s founding director Carlos Dada. “It’s completely unacceptable.”
In response to a request for comment from El Faro, Pegasus developer NSO Group neither confirmed nor denied whether it sold the spyware to the Salvadoran government, but claimed that it only works with “legitimate intelligence agencies” acting within the law.
Last November, the U.S. government blacklisted NSO and a second Israeli spyware company, accusing them of providing spyware to foreign governments that “used these tools to maliciously target” journalists, embassy workers and activists.
Human rights defenders, activists, and journalists in El Salvador have reported phone hacks in recent months. Salvadoran media outlet GatoEncerrado also confirmed Pegasus surveillance against three staff members: the editor-in-chief, the political editor, and one reporter were hacked between September 2020 and November 2021.
Read the report documenting the full extent of the espionage against El Faro.
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