U.S. firm could buy Pegasus
(June 15, 2022)
U.S. defense contractor L3Harris is in talks with NSO Group, a blacklisted Israeli spyware company, to purchase Pegasus, a controversial phone-hacking spyware that has been implicated in surveillance scandals around the world. (Washington Post, Guardian and Haaretz)
NSO was plunged into financial turmoil last year after a consortium of journalists reported on the use of the hacking tool against 37 journalists and human rights activists. It went months without sales to new customers and had to borrow $10 million to meet its November payroll, reports the Financial Times.
NSO’s government clients are known to have used the surveillance technology to target journalists, human rights activists, senior government officials in US-allied countries, and lawyers around the world. Reports last year indicated that previous Mexican administrations spent $61 million to buy Pegasus spyware, which was used against journalists, and civil society leaders. And in El Salvador at least twenty-two members of El Faro -- two-thirds of the online newspaper's staff -- were hacked during the past two years using Pegasus. (See Jan. 13’s post.)
While the deal would reportedly restrict use of Pegasus to the United States “trusted Western allies,” the U.S. Biden administration is warning that a potential deal would raise “serious” counterintelligence and security concerns. A senior White House official said such a deal would “spur intensive review to examine whether the transaction poses a counterintelligence threat to the U.S. government and its systems and information, whether other U.S. equities with the defense contractor may be at risk, to what extent a foreign entity or government retains a degree of access or control, and the broader human rights implications.”
Last year the U.S. Biden administration placed Israeli spyware maker NSO Group on blacklist after it determined the company has acted “contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the U.S.” (See briefs for Nov. 4, 2021)
After the no-show of Central American Northern Triangle presidents at last week’s Summit of the Americas, their foreign ministers gave strident speeches defying U.S. President Joe Biden and named their countries’ terms for U.S. and regional engagement, reports El Faro English. El Salvador and Guatemala used claims of sovereignty to spurn international criticism. Honduras reaffirmed its desire for a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission, but invoked the 2009 coup in a warning that collaboration will hinge on non-meddling in “internal affairs.”
The ongoing crypto crash has managed to wipe out over 50 percent of the value of El Salvador’s Bitcoin hoard. (Vice) Government officials said the fiscal risk was minimal. (Reuters)
The crypto crash is an economic problem for El Salvador, but the real threat is the control President Nayib Bikele has over the country's resources, writes James Bosworth at the Latin America Risk Report. Beyond the potentially interesting national crypto experiment and the manifest opportunities for corruption it opens up, is the problematic issue of a president trading Bitcoin with national reserves, apparently, based on his gut instinct. “There isn’t a process within the Central Bank or other institutions to determine when Bitcoin is bought or sold by the state. It’s up to the whim of the president.”
El Salvador’s draconian security crackdown could feed gang recruitment, as thousands of families are affected by mass detentions that have terrorized already struggling poor communities. The dragnet aimed at “collaborators” ignores the pervasive and unavoidable presence of gangs in many of the country’s neighborhoods, explains community activist Norbert Ross to InSight Crime.
Brazilian authorities said yesterday that they had arrested a second man in the disappearance of journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in the Amazon. They confirmed that their efforts were shifting from a search-and-rescue operation to a homicide investigation, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday’s post.)
Federal police also said they had seized a number of bullet casings and an oar while executing two search warrants. Investigators suspect Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira was responsible for ambushing Phillips and Pereira as they travelled down the Itaquaí River on the way back from a four-day reporting trip. (Guardian)
A main line of police investigation points to an international network that pays poor fishermen to fish illegally in Brazil’s second-largest Indigenous territory, reports the Associated Press.
Employees with Brazil’s national Indigenous agency, the Funai, launched a one-day strike yesterday, amid anger over what they say is the dismantling of a key government agency and official statements criticizing Pereira, a former Funai employee, reports the Guardian.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the government is “deeply concerned” about the circumstances surrounding Phillips’ disappearance, after Theresa May called on the prime minister to make the case “a diplomatic priority.” (Guardian)
Dozens of heavily armed men swarmed through the Mexican city of San Cristobal de las Casas, yesterday. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that one person was killed in confrontations between two gangs. (Associated Press)
An Argentine judge blocked the Venezuelan crew of a cargo plane from leaving the country, after their hotel was raided in a probe into possible links to Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which is listed as a terrorist group by the United States. Iranian crew members had already had their passports temporarily seized, reports the Associated Press.
Stickers, the photos or animations that flash across WhatsApp, have become the language of Colombia’s highly contentious elections this year, reports the Washington Post. In an election defined by anti-establishment sentiment, the stickers are cathartic to indignant voters.
La Silla Vacía delves into the rabbit hole of candidate Rodolfo Hernández’s supporters’ WhatsApp groups. A monitoring exercise of a selection of groups found that 58 percent of messages were multimedia, including audio, video, photos, gifs and stickers.