One of the Dominican Republic’s most prominent investigative journalists was targeted using spyware made by NSO Group, according to a new report released by Amnesty International.
Nuria Piera, who is well known for her investigations into corruption, was hacked three times between 2020 and 2021, according to Amnesty’s forensic analysis of her mobile phone. The revelation marks the first confirmation that NSO’s military-grade spyware, Pegasus, has been used to target journalists in the Dominican Republic, making it the third Latin American country – after Mexico and El Salvador – where such abuse has been discovered.
Piera said she was working on sensitive and high-profile investigations involving the alleged corruption of high-ranking government officials and relatives of a former president at the time her device was hacked, which first occurred around 20 July 2020, and later around 8 September 2021 and 1 October 2021.
Amnesty International and other security researchers have documented dozens of cases of Pegasus spyware being used by government authorities to target journalists, including by NSO clients in the UAE, India, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia. When a mobile is successfully hacked using Pegasus, an operator of the spyware can access everything on the victim’s phone, including phone calls, encrypted messages, pictures, and a user’s emails and physical location. Pegasus users can also manipulate a victim’s camera and recorder, turning the mobile into a portable listening device.
Reporters have described feeling violated and endangered after discovering they have been targeted by spyware, which can only be confirmed by researchers using sophisticated forensic analysis.
Piera said she had been shocked by the news that she had been hacked at least three times during the last two administrations, which she called a clear violation of press freedom and her individual rights. The violation also put her sources in a dangerous position, she said.
Piera added that she had once been alerted by a confidential source that a government official has authorised the hacking of her phone in order to find out who was leaking information to her.
“As an investigative journalist, we are always aware that we are under constant scrutiny, but thanks to Amnesty International this is the first time that I have proof that my phone was bugged. In our country there’s not one single case in which a government official has been prosecuted for an illegal intervention, which shows the weakness of our system,” she said in a statement.
NSO, which has been blacklisted by the Biden administration following reports of widespread abuse of its software by governments around the world, has said its spyware is only meant to be used to investigate serious crime and terrorism. The company, which says it only sells its spyware to government agencies, does not reveal the names of its clients.
In a statement to the Guardian, NSO said it asked Amnesty for a copy of its report so it could conduct a preliminary investigation into the matter.
It added: “NSO utilises a rigorous due diligence program to mitigate the potential risk of any misuse of our technology. The company does not operate the technology and has no insight into customer usage. The company investigates all credible allegations of misuse.”
Amnesty’s report raises serious questions about the Dominican Republic’s apparent use of one of the world’s most sophisticated cyber-weapons, including how it acquired Pegasus and how it has been used. Only two of seven entities within the Dominican Republic who were contacted by Amnesty responded to its request for comment: the office of the attorney general and the ministry of interior and police. Both denied using or acquiring Pegasus during the tenure of the current president, which began in August 2020.
Researchers at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School, which tracks spyware abuse, said its scanning had also determined a Pegasus system primarily being used within the Dominican Republic, but did not release any additional details about who might have been targeted.
A 2021 human rights report by the US state department found that while individuals and groups were generally able to criticise the government publicly and privately without retaliation in the Dominican Republic, there were incidents in which authorities “intimidated” members of the press.
Amnesty researchers said they spoke to dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in the Dominican Republic who said they suspected being targeted for surveillance because of their work. Some also cited smear campaigns, including orchestrated attacks against them on social media.
Elina Castillo Jiménez, a digital surveillance researcher at Amnesty International, said: “These findings confirm that journalists in the Dominican Republic are exposed to surveillance, to silence and intimidate them. Targeting journalists because of their work is unacceptable under any circumstance.
“The Dominican authorities must immediately investigate this case and take concrete steps to protect journalists and prevent this from happening again.”