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Pegasus spyware was used to hack journalists’ phones. I am suing the creators | Nelson Rauda Zablah

I was warned in August 2020. A source told me to meet him at six o’clock at night in an empty parking lot in San Salvador. He had my number, but he contacted me through a mutual acquaintance instead; he didn’t want to leave a trace. When I arrived, he asked me to leave the phone in the car. As we walked, he warned me that my colleagues at El Faro, the Salvadoran news organization, were being followed because of a story they were pursuing about negotiations between the president of El Salvador and the notorious MS-13 gang.

This can be read as an eerie movie scene, but there are many Central American journalists who have lived it for real. Suspecting you’re being followed, dropping your phone before meetings, using encrypted messaging and email apps, speaking in code, never publishing your live location – these are routines for many in my profession.

I wouldn’t know until more than a year later what my source really meant. My colleagues weren’t just followed when they investigated that story. They, and at least 18 other members of El Faro – including me – had been repeated targets of a weapons-grade spyware called Pegasus. Pegasus is the shiny toy of Israel-based spyware firm NSO Group. Forensic analysis by Citizen Lab and others found that the Pegasus attacks in El Salvador began in June 2020 and continued until November 2021. In total, 35 journalists and members of civil society were spied on using this tool.

When infected by Pegasus, spies effectively keep a clone of your phone. They can see everything from your personal photos and texts to your purchases and your choice and use of apps. When the spying was discovered, I had to take measures that included ending my family group chat and deleting my banking apps.

For journalists, this means that spies can see every chat and phone call with our sources. I was hacked while stalking and publishing private videos of two brothers of President Nayib Bukele negotiating El Salvador’s Bitcoin law with foreign businessmen before it took effect. My colleagues Gabriela Cáceres and Carlos Martínez were hacked as they continued to reveal more details about the government’s handling of gangs and a thwarted criminal investigation into it. I could go on and on.

Journalism has become even more difficult after the attacks. When news of the hack broke, a few sources jokingly responded to our calls by saluting the good people who might be listening. But many more picked up the phone just to say we should stop calling them, and most simply didn’t answer at all. In one case, a source told me he now understood why his wife had been fired from her government post. I felt horrible. Guilty. Powerless.

That’s how Pegasus makes you feel most of all: powerless. We believe the El Faro infections happened through a “zero-click exploit,” meaning we didn’t even click on a fake link to open a door for the spies. They just broke in. Change your number, get a new device – they’ll just break in there too.

And yet we refused be powerless. We told our story to news outlets around the world. In El Salvador, we held press conferences, went on TV and filed a case with the Attorney General’s office. None of this led to any accountability for illegal espionage. So, represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, 14 of my colleagues at El Faro and I have decided to sue the NSO Group.

I can assure you that we are not in this for the money: if we wanted to get rich, we would not be independent journalists. We do this as a progression of our daily work in El Salvador to expose official wrongdoing. We are doing this in the United States because we have exhausted all legal options in El Salvador’s coordinated institutions.

And we don’t just do this for ourselves. In April, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz compiled a list of more than 450 law-abiding men and women around the world whose devices had been hacked by NSO Group’s Pegasus. Many of them are not in countries or positions where they can sue.

But some have to. NSO leaders should not be able to wash their hands as their tools are used to persecute journalists. In a very real sense, the NSO put the dogs on us. And now we fight back.

  • Nelson Rauda Zablah is a Salvadoran journalist whose work has been featured in the New York Times, the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, and the Economist among other publications

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