Salvadoran journalists’ phones hacked with spyware, report finds

Pegasus allows users to steal encrypted messages, photos, contacts, documents and other sensitive information from infected phones without users’ knowledge. (File/AFP)
Pegasus allows users to steal encrypted messages, photos, contacts, documents and other sensitive information from infected phones without users’ knowledge. (File/AFP)
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Updated 13 January 2022

Salvadoran journalists’ phones hacked with spyware, report finds

Pegasus allows users to steal encrypted messages, photos, contacts, documents and other sensitive information from infected phones without users’ knowledge. (File/AFP)
  • Report finds that nearly three dozen Salvadorian journalists had their phone hacked since mid-2020 and implanted by sophisticated spyware, aka Pegasus

SAN SALVADOR: The cell phones of nearly three dozen journalists and activists in El Salvador, several 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, a Canadian research institute said it has found.
The alleged hacks, which came amid an increasingly hostile environment in El Salvador for media and rights organizations under populist President Nayib Bukele, were discovered late last year by The Citizen Lab, which studies spyware at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. Human-rights group Amnesty International, which collaborated with Citizen Lab on the investigation, says it later confirmed a sample of Citizen Lab’s findings through its own technology arm.
Citizen Lab said it found evidence of incursions on the phones that occurred between July 2020 and November 2021. It said it could not identify who was responsible for deploying the Israeli-designed spyware. Known as Pegasus, the software has been purchased by state actors worldwide, some of whom have used the tool to surveil journalists.
In the El Salvador attack, the heavy focus on editors, reporters and activists working inside that single Central American country points to a local customer with a particular interest in their activities, said Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab.
“I can’t think of a case where near-exclusive Pegasus targeting in one country didn’t wind up being a user in that country,” Scott-Railton said.
Citizen Lab released a report https://citizenlab.ca/2022/01/project-torogoz-extensive-hacking-media-ci... on its findings on Wednesday.
In a statement to Reuters, Bukele’s communications office said the government of El Salvador was not a client of NSO Group Technologies, the company that developed Pegasus. It said the administration is investigating the alleged hacking and had information that some top administration officials also might have had their phones infiltrated.
“We have indications that we, government officials, are also victims of attacks,” the statement said.
Pegasus allows users to steal encrypted messages, photos, contacts, documents and other sensitive information from infected phones without users’ knowledge. It can also turn handsets into eavesdropping devices by silently activating their cameras and microphones, according to product manuals reviewed by Reuters.
NSO, which has long kept its client list confidential, declined to comment on whether El Salvador was a Pegasus customer. The company said in a statement that it sells its products only to “vetted and legitimate” intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight crime and that it is not involved in surveillance operations. NSO said it has a “zero-tolerance” policy for misuse of its spyware for activities such as monitoring dissidents, activists and journalists and that it has terminated contracts of some customers who have done so.
Citizen Lab researchers said they began a forensic analysis of the El Salvador phones in September after being contacted by two journalists there who suspected their devices might be compromised.
Researchers said they ultimately found evidence that spyware had been planted on a total of 37 devices belonging to three human-rights groups, six news publications and an independent journalist.
Hardest hit was the online news site El Faro. Citizen Lab researchers said they found telltale tracks of spyware infections on the cell phones of 22 reporters, editors and administrative personnel — more than two-thirds of the company’s staff — and evidence that data had been stolen from many of those devices, including a few that had several gigabytes of material extracted.
El Faro was under constant surveillance during at least 17 months, between June 29, 2020 and November 23, 2021, with the phone of Editor-in-Chief Oscar Martinez infiltrated at least 42 times, Citizen Lab claimed.
“It is hard for me to think or conclude something other than the government of El Salvador” was behind the alleged hacks, Martinez said. “It’s evident that there is a radical interest in understanding what El Faro is doing.”
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.


Three more senior executives quit Twitter amid fallout from $44bn Musk deal

Three more senior executives quit Twitter amid fallout from $44bn Musk deal
Updated 18 May 2022

Three more senior executives quit Twitter amid fallout from $44bn Musk deal

Three more senior executives quit Twitter amid fallout from $44bn Musk deal
  • Tesla magnate says agreement ‘on hold’ after spat with CEO Parag Agrawal over possible fake accounts
  • Up to 20 percent of platform’s 229m accounts could be spam bots, Musk claims

LONDON: Three top executives quit Twitter on Wednesday as questions continue to swirl around Tesla magnate Elon Musk’s deal to buy the platform.

The departure of Ilya Brown, vice president of product management; Katrina Lane,  vice president of Twitter Service, and Max Schmeiser, head of data science, comes shortly after Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal fired two top executives, Kayvon Beykpour, the company’s general manager, and Bruce Falck, head of revenue.

“We are thankful for all of their hard work and leadership,” a Twitter spokesperson commented following the latest departures. “We continue to be focused on providing the very best experience to the people on Twitter.”

Earlier this month, Musk said that a potential mass resignation of Twitter employees is “fine” following his deal to buy the social media company.

“It’s a free country,” Musk said at the Met Gala. “Certainly if anyone doesn’t feel comfortable with that, they will on their own accord go somewhere else. That’s fine.”

The Tesla CEO agreed on a $44 billion deal to buy Twitter in April, but last week said the agreement was “on hold” while he sought clarification about possible fake accounts.

Twitter CEO Agrawal said that internal estimates of spam accounts for the past four quarters were “well under 5 percent,” but has refused to explain how the figure was reached.

“We don’t believe this specific estimation can be performed externally, given the critical need to use both public and private information (which we can’t share),” he said.

On Tuesday, however, Musk said that Agrawal had “publicly refused to show proof” that less than 5 percent of Twitter’s accounts were fake, and said the deal “cannot move forward” until evidence is provided.

Musk suggested that up to 20 percent of the platform’s 229 million accounts could be spam bots.


Fake news or free expression: Top CEO Conference panel examines the hazards of digital media age

Fake news or free expression: Top CEO Conference panel examines the hazards of digital media age
Updated 18 May 2022

Fake news or free expression: Top CEO Conference panel examines the hazards of digital media age

Fake news or free expression: Top CEO Conference panel examines the hazards of digital media age
  • Top CEO Conference panel explores the case for digital media regulation to fight misinformation 
  • Examples of truth-telling and conspiracy theories show social media can be a double-edged sword

DUBAI: Fake news, a term popularized by former US President Donald Trump to berate sections of the media, is viewed by many in civil society and the business community as one of the most harmful phenomena of the digital age.

There are several recent examples of misinformation, or indeed deliberate disinformation, published online and then amplified by social media, having real-world consequences, from stirring up ethnic tensions to undermining public health initiatives. 

Take, for instance, the case of Edgar Welch, a 28-year-old father of two from Salisbury, North Carolina, who in December 2016 read an article online about an alleged elite pedophile ring operating out of a pizzeria in Washington D.C.

“Pizzagate,” as it became known, was a far-right conspiracy theory, which sought to connect several high-ranking Democratic Party officials with an alleged human trafficking and child sex ring linked to a restaurant named Comet Ping Pong.

After reading the article, Welch picked up a gun and drove the full six hours from his home to Washington D.C. where he opened fire on the restaurant. No one was injured in the attack, and the allegations have since been thoroughly debunked. 

Compare this example with the footage that emerged on May 13 of Israeli security forces attacking Palestinian pallbearers carrying the coffin of veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead two days earlier. 

Thanks to video captured by witnesses on their smartphones and shared on social media, the whole world was able to bear witness to this shocking incident instantaneously, spurring world leaders to condemn the funeral assault.  

During a panel discussion at the Top CEO Conference in Dubai on May 17, both of these incidents were raised as examples of the tremendous power of social media as a means, on the one hand, of spreading misinformation, and, on the other, of exposing the truth. 

It is because of the positive traits of social media as a weapon of truth that media outlets and civil society are cautious about onerous government regulation of these platforms, which might undermine freedom of expression.

“Nobody is against freedom, but we should also be against chaos,” Faisal J. Abbas, the editor-in-chief of Arab News, told Tuesday’s panel. 

“We are talking about billions of people, billions of posts, it is physically impossible to monitor everything and by the time they get to it, the damage would most probably have been done.  

“If you remember from 2016 the fake story which was spreading on Facebook and other platforms about the pizzeria that had a child abuse ring, and somebody took a gun and went and shot up the place.

“The story got more views than the rebuttals. The more crazy the news, the more content it creates, the more websites like Facebook get traction,” Abbas said. 

“There is no end to fake news but we must continue to battle it.”  

Indeed, the digital transformation, which has revolutionized the sharing of information in just a matter of years, has left regulators and companies fighting to keep up with some of its more damaging manifestations.

Hussein Freijeh, general manager of Snap Inc. MENA, who also participated in Tuesday’s panel, said that the efforts of governments to regulate online platforms should not “take away the responsibility of the tech platforms” to tackle fake news.

“When we talk about regulations, there is a component of thoughtful regulation with the government, and we want to engage in that, and help the government to come up with what that means,” Freijeh told Arab News on the sidelines of Tuesday’s forum. 

“Then there is self-regulation, or platform regulation. And this is our responsibility and how we deal with product design, and how to do the policy to control that. 

“And then (there is) self-responsibility from (content) creators and the community, and that is an educational process. It requires a lot of technology to allow self-regulation, and it is a process that we have to commit to.” 

While fake news was in no way created by social media, the sheer speed and accessibility these networks provide means that harmful and malicious behavior now has a greater reach than ever before. 

“Social media gave people freedom,” Khaled Janahi, chairman of Vision 3, told Tuesday’s panel. But, he warned, people need to use it correctly.  

In separate comments to Arab News, Thomas Hughes, executive director of Meta’s oversight board, said that social media companies have a role to play in combating fake news. 

“Content moderation policies have to be crafted in a way that reflects the kinds of standards we want to set globally,” he said. 

“As the (oversight) board cannot hear every appeal, when we select cases, we are thinking about what kind of precedent our decision might create, and we prioritize cases that have the potential to affect lots of users around the world, are of critical importance to public discourse or raise important questions about Meta’s policies.” 

He added that Meta — formerly known as Facebook — has already issued more than 100 recommendations and committed to implementing the majority of them. 

But conflicts like those raging in Ukraine and Ethiopia, according to Hughes, add fuel to the fire of fake news. 

Conflict and instability “unfortunately, go hand in hand with rises in mis- and disinformation — although this issue is very much global,” he told Arab News.

Journalists can play a key role in tackling fake news, according to Hughes, which is why many of Meta’s board members have worked in the traditional media in the past. 

“They feel passionately about these issues and about ensuring that more is done to protect journalists and free speech, while also working to protect people from harm.”


Senior Jerusalem Catholics condemn behavior of Israeli police at journalist’s funeral

Senior Jerusalem Catholics condemn behavior of Israeli police at journalist’s funeral
Updated 17 May 2022

Senior Jerusalem Catholics condemn behavior of Israeli police at journalist’s funeral

Senior Jerusalem Catholics condemn behavior of Israeli police at journalist’s funeral
  • The Vatican’s representative in the holy city claims raid on funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh on Friday breached 1993 religious freedom agreement
  • Catholic patriarch of Jerusalem slams ‘severe violation of international norms and regulations’

LONDON: Senior Roman Catholic figures in Jerusalem said Israel “brutally” violated religious freedom in the city after police confronted mourners at the funeral procession of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on Friday.

Police beat people carrying Abu Akleh’s coffin from St. Joseph Hospital and fired stun grenades at the crowd.

Monsignor Tomasz Grysa, the Vatican’s representative in Jerusalem, said the incident violated a 1993 agreement between the Holy See and Israel that “upholds and observes the human right of freedom of religion, which in this case has been brutally violated.”

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Roman Catholic patriarch of Jerusalem, added: “The Israel Police’s invasion and disproportionate use of force — attacking mourners, striking them with batons, using smoke grenades, shooting rubber bullets, frightening the hospital patients — is a severe violation of international norms and regulations, including the fundamental human right of freedom of religion.”

The statements came as part of a series of condemnations made in a press conference at St. Joseph Hospital by the leaders of 15 religious denominations based in the city.

Jamil Koussa, the hospital’s director, said he believed the police targeted Abu Akleh’s coffin, not just the mourners, in an effort to intimidate and “horrify” onlookers.

A number of medical staff were also injured by the police after they stormed the hospital. Dr. Mohammed Hmeidat, who works in the neonatal intensive care unit, told the BBC he was burned by a stun grenade.

“One of them was very close to my feet, and [it] exploded. After that, we hurried to the emergency department and [the police] also followed us [there],” he said.

Israeli law enforcement warned Jerusalem’s religious figures against making “extreme statements, which include assertions about events that are still being examined, only stir up emotions and are not responsible.

“We expect clerics to help calm the area and avoid statements that agitate it.”

Abu Akleh, an Al Jazeera journalist and a Christian, was shot while covering an Israeli military raid in a Palestinian refugee camp in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin on Wednesday.

The Israel Defense Forces initially denied they were responsible for her death, but amid evidence from eyewitnesses that the fatal shot came from IDF personnel, they have since opened an investigation into the activity of their soldiers during the operation.

Israeli police, meanwhile, claimed intervention in her funeral was necessary as the journalist’s family had planned to use a hearse to transport the coffin from the hospital but the crowd had threatened the driver and appropriated the body against their wishes.

“Police were present at the incident to maintain public order and to allow the funeral to take place when there were extremists on the ground who provoked and engaged in an attempt to turn the funeral into a violent event,” the police said in a statement.

However, Abu Akleh’s brother, Tony Abu Akleh, told the BBC: “Everybody saw the pallbearers beaten savagely by batons without any mercy, without any respect to the funeral, to the dead.

“This was a national funeral for all the Palestinians to participate in…[The police] had no business to do [what they did] at the gate.”

Abu Akleh’s niece, Lina, told the BBC: “I honestly was very afraid…because [the police] started throwing stun grenades, and one of them actually threatened to beat me if I don’t move out of the way,” she said.


Breaking the news on the frontlines of war — Arizh Mukhammed on finding her ‘courage’

Breaking the news on the frontlines of war — Arizh Mukhammed on finding her ‘courage’
Updated 18 May 2022

Breaking the news on the frontlines of war — Arizh Mukhammed on finding her ‘courage’

Breaking the news on the frontlines of war — Arizh Mukhammed on finding her ‘courage’

The old adage that women have to work twice as hard for half the recognition clearly applies to war correspondent Arizh Mukhammed.

Working as a Sky News Arabia reporter based in Moscow, she has the demanding role of reporting from the frontlines of the Russia-Ukraine war.

The half-Russian, half-Syrian speaks three languages and holds a doctorate in pharmacology but describes her current role as one of the most challenging and rewarding of her life.

“Reporting about the war is an extraordinary, unpredictable event; I was shocked when it began, and I was the only one on the team who spoke Russian,” she said in an interview on the sidelines of the Arab Women’s Forum in Dubai.

“I hate wars and conflicts. I struggled in the areas controlled by Russian forces and was not allowed on the Ukrainian side. Like any human being, I had fears and wondered if what I was doing was useful and balanced. At the same time, it’s a new step in my career, and I have to move forward and rely on my skills. I had to find courage.”

 

 

Often, Mukhammed has time to do a single take with no room for error.

“I have to accurately portray the facts with no option of redoing a shot,” she said. “And I dislike the word ‘truth’ because each side has their version of ‘truth.’ It’s not a reporter’s job to provide analysis. My job is to report the facts on the ground, be neutral, and not express an opinion about one side being right and another wrong. War is complex.”

Mukhammed spoke on a panel alongside other esteemed war reporters at the Arab Women’s Forum, including Alhadath senior news anchor Christiane Baissary, about the trials and rewards of the job. Having other female role models helped them carve their path.


Read More: Arab Women Forum kicks off in Dubai


“I came to journalism from another field, but honestly, Shireen Abu Akleh is the one I knew from my childhood from her Al Jazeera days,” she said.

Akleh was a world-renowned journalist. Press circles across the world mourned her death.

“Nobody in the Arab World doesn’t know her. She was famous for her coverage in danger zones and for getting out. So, when I heard the sad news, everyone I knew, even friends and family not related to journalism, was deeply affected. She had a magnetic charisma. I like her language, her voice. I am so sad to lose an idol.”

While pursuing her doctorate in Moscow, Mukhammed yearned for the Arabic language and wanted to work in a field where she could better utilize her bilingual skills. She soon landed a career in media, translating between Russian and Arabic. She joined Sky News Arabia when they opened their Moscow Bureau.

“I prefer not to categorize myself as a war reporter. I am prepared to report on politics and business wherever the story carries me,” she said. “My advice to a young female reporter is to educate herself, always look at two sides of a story and assess if you are objective enough to report on a story.”


There isn’t enough moderation in Arabic and non-English languages, Meta Oversight Board’s Head of Global Engagement tells forum in Dubai

There isn’t enough moderation in Arabic and non-English languages, Meta Oversight Board’s Head of Global Engagement tells forum in Dubai
Updated 18 May 2022

There isn’t enough moderation in Arabic and non-English languages, Meta Oversight Board’s Head of Global Engagement tells forum in Dubai

There isn’t enough moderation in Arabic and non-English languages, Meta Oversight Board’s Head of Global Engagement tells forum in Dubai
  • When it comes to content moderation, Meta and its various social-media platforms have time and again attracted criticism

DUBAI: There is not enough Arabic and non-English-language content moderation online, the head of global engagement for Meta’s Oversight Board, Rachel Wolbers, said at the the Top CEO and Arab Women Forum conference in Dubai on Tuesday.

“Meta –Facebook– is really taking a lot of initiative to try to figure out a way to outsource some of these really difficult decisions ” Wolbers told the audience.

“I'm definitely not here to apologise or defend Facebook in any circumstance, and some of the problems that they (Facebook) had in 2016 still continue to this day, the challenge of misinformation and disinformation is a really big one,” she added.

“I would not ignore that the company is not doing enough; the board is constantly pushing for this — it is not well developed, not well invested in” in comparison to English-language moderation, she continued.

“we have specifically called out the company to produce a lot more transparency around their content moderation and Arabic and potential biases that the company may be building into their content moderation Arabic.”

When it comes to content moderation, Meta and its various social-media platforms have time and again attracted criticism as racism, extremism and anti-social behavior surfaced across them. The company set up the independent Oversight Board to moderate such content.

However, Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas questioned whether the board can truly make a significant difference.

“As much as I am in favor of having an oversight board at Facebook, at Twitter or at Snap or TikTok…how much say do they really have?” he asked. “How much can they really do?”

(Supplied)

Snap Inc’s MENA GM Hussein Freijeh claimed that social-media technology itself was neither good nor bad — it depends on the user.

“Snapchat works with regional cultural dynamics in terms of security and content. Snapchat is considered a useful tool for content creators,” Freijeh said.

While fake news was in no way created by social media, the sheer speed and accessibility the networks provide means that harmful and malicious behavior now has a greater reach than ever before.

“Social media gave people freedom,” Khaled Janahi, the Chairman of Vision 3, told the panel but warned that people needed to use it correctly.

Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas questioned whether the board can truly make a significant difference. (AN Photo/Zubiya Shaikh)

Abbas said: “Nobody is against freedom but we should also be against chaos.”

He explained: “We are talking about billions of people, billions of posts, it is physically impossible to monitor everything and by the time they get to it, the damage would most probably have been done.

“If you remember from 2016 the fake story which was spreading on Facebook and other platforms about the pizzeria that had a child abuse ring, and somebody took a gun and went and shot up the place,” the editor continued, referring to PizzaGate — a conspiracy theory that received widespread attention on social media and led to severe consequences, including the ‘creation’ of a fake newspaper, the Denver Guardian, which claimed to have hacked into former secretary of state and presidential runner-up Hillary Clinton’s emails and discovered a Democrat-run child prostitution ring.

“The story got more views than the rebuttals. The more crazy the news, the more content it creates, the more websites like Facebook get traction,” Abbas said. “There is no end to fake news but we must continue to battle it.”