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)
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Updated 13 January 2022

Salvadoran journalists’ phones hacked with spyware, report finds

  • 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.


Netflix to let more subscribers preview content

Updated 01 December 2022

Netflix to let more subscribers preview content

  • Feature allows selected members to preview shows or films

LONDON: Netflix Inc. is planning to let tens of thousands of users around the world to preview content from early next year, expanding beyond its current previewer base of 2,000-plus subscribers, sources reported on Thursday.
Netflix’s Preview Club, which started more than a year ago, allows its members to watch some shows or films before they appear broadly on the platform and review them, the Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter.
The video streaming giant did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
The move underpins Netflix’s efforts to ensure quality content, at a time when investors and analysts focus more on the profitability of streaming firms.


Taliban silence Voice of America broadcasts in Afghanistan

Updated 01 December 2022

Taliban silence Voice of America broadcasts in Afghanistan

  • Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are funded by the US government, though they claim editorial independence
  • Afghanistan has lost 40 percent of its media outlets and 60 percent of its journalists since the Taliban takeover

WASHINGTON: The Voice of America said Wednesday that Taliban authorities have banned FM radio broadcasts from VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Afghanistan, starting Thursday.
VOA said Taliban authorities cited “complaints they have received about programming content” without providing specifics.
VOA and RFE are funded by the US government, though they claim editorial independence.
The Taliban overran Afghanistan in August 2021 as American and NATO forces were in the final weeks of their pullout from the country after 20 years of war.
Despite initially promising a more moderate rule, they have restricted rights and freedoms and widely implemented their harsh interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Thursday that Afghanistan has press laws and any network found “repeatedly contravening” these laws will have their privilege of working in the country taken away.
“VOA and Azadi Radio (Radio Liberty) failed to adhere to these laws, were found as repeat offenders, failed to show professionalism and were therefore shut down,” he said.
The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said recently that Afghanistan has lost 40 percent of its media outlets and 60 percent of its journalists since the Taliban takeover.


As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?

Updated 01 December 2022

As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?

  • NFT startups in region seem to think so

DUBAI: OasisX, the nascent curated multichain non-fungible token marketplace, which aims to drive adoption of NFTs in the Middle East and North Africa region is embracing Web3 in several ways integrating NFTs, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies within its platform.

Jimi Ibrahim, one of the co-founders of the company, who has described the new iteration of the internet as a digital renaissance, said: “Web3 has four pillars: Blockchain as a secure infrastructure, tokens like NFTs for proof of ownership and provenance, cryptocurrencies for store of value and transactions, and the metaverse, which is a combination of augmented reality and virtual reality.”

The adoption of Web3, however, has witnessed a slowdown as cryptocurrency and NFT scams have become rampant in markets such as the US. Despite the promise of a more secure internet, cryptocurrencies can be used and abused for fraudulent activities, as evidenced by the recent FTX scandal.

Founded by Sam Bankman-Fried in 2019, FTX is a cryptocurrency exchange, that rose to popularity thanks to celebrity endorsements and an aggressive marketing strategy.

In November, the crypto news site CoinDesk published the balance sheet of Alameda Research, a crypto investing firm also owned by Bankman-Fried, showing that Alameda held a large amount of a digital currency created by FTX called FTT.

“While there is nothing per se untoward or wrong about that, it shows Bankman-Fried’s trading giant Alameda rests on a foundation largely made up of a coin that a sister company invented, not an independent asset like a fiat currency or another crypto,” the article said.

However, if the value of the FTT were to drop, Alameda would essentially be at risk of insolvency.

The article set in motion a series of legal actions against Bankman-Fried, FTX, and the celebrities who promoted the crypto exchange, resulting in one of the biggest financial scandals.

The incident has slowed down the adoption of crypto, diminished faith in the industry, and cost a lot of people a lot of money. Although Ibrahim noted that it had “hurt the industry,” he pointed out that it had acted as a purge of sorts.

He said: “Foul play has to be shed light on, and such players have to be removed from the playing field so that the environment is much more safe and secure for natural growth.” He added that, ultimately, was the future where “decentralized finance is going to change the world for the better.”

The global NFT industry alone reached a market capitalization of $41 billion by the end of 2021, according to blockchain data company Chainalysis.

The space was also growing to include non-fungible assets, Ibrahim said, which would see it extending into the real world. For example, the real estate and NFT industries have been merging with several properties being sold as NFTs.

In February, US-based real estate company Propy sold an NFT-backed property, a 2,164-square-foot house in Florida, for $653,000 with the winning bidder receiving a NFT as proof of the home’s ownership.

“This is the future we’re looking to tap into, facilitate and expedite because it only makes sense to secure everything on the blockchain,” Ibrahim added.

OasisX aims to bring a new layer of security and accessibility to the world of NFTs in the MENA region for both artists and businesses.

Ibrahim along with co-founders Najib Khanafer and Ramzi Mneimneh started working on the platform more than one year ago and officially launched it at the NFT LB event in Lebanon in September.

The event featured the work of 23 artists, half of which were sold out during the event, as well as served as a platform for panel discussions, movie screenings, and AR and VR experiences.

The company’s marketplace features only vetted artists, unlike platforms such as OpenSea, which avoids any “bogus projects,” Ibrahim said.

Anyone can create and sell NFTs on OpenSea. Since the platform does not vet artists, many fraudulent NFTs end up on it. Earlier this year, OpenSea reported that more than 80 percent of the items on the platform were plagiarized works, fake collections, and spam.

“We want to keep the art community safe and secure with the right projects,” Ibrahim added.

Available in English and Arabic, the platform currently has 250 vetted artists and aims to grow into the biggest MENA-based marketplace. It also works with galleries through a referral program where the gallery receives a royalty over the first sale of any artist that gets onboarded and vetted on the platform.

It only charges 2 percent in transaction fees — among the lowest in the industry — because “artists should make the most of the sale of their hard work,” Ibrahim said. That was also why, he added, the company would never remove royalties.

Often, the technical skills needed to create NFTs can serve as a barrier to entry for both artists and brands. The company, therefore, created LaunchX, an NFT generator powered by artificial intelligence.

Recognizing that there are some still wary of NFTs and cryptocurrencies, the company has integrated options such as paying through credit cards, to make it more accessible.

The entire process is secured through a smart contract on the blockchain. Ibrahim said it was more secure than using traditional banking, especially in countries such as Lebanon, where the banking system was a shambles leaving many unable to use credit cards.

It was almost impossible to corrupt information on the blockchain making it more secure than traditional transaction methods used in Web2, he added.

Despite resistance and reluctance, Ibrahim forecasted that Web3, and cryptocurrencies, would become the norm in the next five to 10 years with people using it just as seamlessly as they use debit and credit cards today.
 


Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives

Updated 01 December 2022

Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives

  • The annual campaign reveals the most-streamed songs, artists and podcasts in the Kingdom over the past 12 months
  • Canadian superstar The Weeknd topped the list of the most popular artists in Saudi Arabia, followed by Taylor Swift and K-Pop group BTS

DUBAI: Audio streaming service Spotify has released its annual Wrapped campaign, which includes a roundup of the most popular artists, songs, albums and podcasts streamed in each country over the past year, as well as a personalized experience for each user based on their own activity on the platform during that time.

“Wrapped is such an exciting time of the year where we celebrate the role music and podcasts play in soundtracking our lives,” said Mark Abou Jaoude, Spotify’s head of music.

“This year, once again, we saw how open Saudi listeners are to different genres of music and it was great to see local artists making huge splashes.”

Canadian superstar The Weeknd topped the list of the most-streamed artists in Saudi Arabia, followed by Taylor Swift and K-Pop group BTS. Another Canadian, Drake, was fourth, followed by veteran rapper Eminem. Billie Eilish, The Neighbourhood, Justin Bieber, Imagine Dragons and Lana Del Rey completed the top 10.

Local artists experienced a growth in listeners, Spotify said, with Abdullah Al-Farwan the most-streamed Saudi performer in the country, followed by Abdul Majeed Abdullah and Sheilat artist Badr Al-Ezzi.

Spotify reported that there has been a massive growth in the popularity of Sheilat, lyrically driven folkloric songs, in recent years. According to 2021 data from the company, 80 percent of Sheilat listeners on the platform stream the music while they are gaming. This year, the top 10 list of most-streamed Saudi artists included a higher number of Sheilat singers, including Ghareeb Al-Mukhles, Fahad bin Fasla, Abdullah Al-Mukhles, and Mohammed bin Grman, alongside popular household names such as Abdul Majeed Abdullah, Mohammed Abdu and Rashed Al-Majed.

Most-streamed Saudi artists in Saudi Arabia

Abdullah Al-Farwan

Abdul Majeed Abdullah

Badr Al-Ezzi

Ghareeb Al-Mukhles

Mohammed Abdu

Rashed Al-Majed

Khaled Abdul Rahman

Fahad Bin Fasla

Abdullah Al-Mukhles

Mohammed Bin Grman

In terms of the year’s most-popular songs, “Ya Ibn Khamash” by Mohammed Al-Najm is the most-streamed Khaleeji track in Saudi Arabia this year. Assala Nasri and Badr Al-Ezzi each have two songs in the top 10: “Henain” and “Al-Sourah” from the former, and “Kalemni” and “Zikrayat” from the latter.

Most-streamed Khaleeji songs in Saudi Arabia

“Ya Ibn Khamash” by Mohammed Al-Najm

“Kalemni” by Badr Al-Ezzi

“Henain” by Assala Nasri

“Al-Sourah” by Assala Nasri

“Ghazal Ma Yensady” by Abdul Majeed Abdallah

“Shoft El-Nejoum” by Lamiya Almalki

“Qalby Jobarny” by Yasser Abdul Wahab

“Ashofak Kil Youm” by Mohamed Abdu

“Adaaj Oyoun” by Majd Al-Raslani

“Zikrayat” by Badr Al-Ezzi

 

Most-streamed songs in Saudi Arabia

“Another Love” by Tom Odell

“As It Was” by Harry Styles

“Middle of the Night” by Elley Duhe

“Enemy” by Imagine Dragons featuring J.I.D.

“Heat Waves” by Glass Animals

“Sweater Weather” by The Neighbourhood

“After Dark” by Mr. Kitty

“Close Eyes” by DVRST

“Save Your Tears” by The Weeknd

“Industry Baby” by Lil Nas X featuring Jack Harlow

A number of educational, motivational and cultural podcasts also proved very popular with Spotify listeners in Saudi Arabia this year, including “Kanabet El-Sebt,” “Finjan” and “Podcast Tanafuss.”

Most popular podcasts in Saudi Arabia:

Kanabet El-Sebt

Finjan

Podcast Tanafuss

Abajoura

Sa7eb

E7tiyal

Al-Salfah

Jinayah

Sokrat

Areeka

Spotify users can access their personalized Wrapped experience on the platform’s mobile app now.
 


Leading media outlets urge US to end prosecution of Julian Assange

Updated 29 November 2022

Leading media outlets urge US to end prosecution of Julian Assange

  • Guardian, NYT, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel editors and publishers said the indictment threatens freedom of the press.

WASHINGTON: The United States should end its prosecution of Julian Assange, leading media outlets from the United States and Europe that had collaborated with the WikiLeaks founder said on Monday, citing press freedom concerns.
“This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press,” editors and publishers of the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País said in an open letter.
Assange is wanted by US authorities on 18 counts, including a spying charge, related to WikiLeaks’ release of confidential US military records and diplomatic cables. His supporters say he is an anti-establishment hero who has been victimized because he exposed US wrongdoing, including in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Monday marked 12 years since those media outlets collaborated to release excerpts from over 250,000 documents obtained by Assange in the so-called “Cablegate” leak.
The material was leaked to WikiLeaks by the then-American soldier Chelsea Manning and revealed the inner workings of US diplomacy around the globe. The documents exposed “corruption, diplomatic scandals, and spy affairs on an international scale,” the letter said.
In August, a group of journalists and lawyers sued the CIA and its former director, Mike Pompeo, over allegations the intelligence agency spied on them when they visited Assange during his stay in Ecuador’s embassy in London.
Assange spent seven years in the embassy before being dragged out and jailed in 2019 for breaching bail conditions. He has remained in prison in London while his extradition case is decided. If extradited to the United States, he faces a sentence of up to 175 years in an American maximum security prison.
His legal team has appealed to the High Court in London to block his extradition in a legal battle that has dragged on for more than a decade.
“Publishing is not a crime,” the media outlets said in their letter on Monday.