Report: Mexican Journalists, Activists Targeted With Spyware

MEXICO CITY — An internet watchdog has found that Mexican journalists, lawyers and activists were targeted by Israeli-produced spyware that is sold exclusively to governments.

A report published Monday by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto says the targets included people investigating alleged government corruption and purported human rights abuses by security forces.

They received messages with links that, if clicked on, opened up their devices to being spied upon. Prominent journalists Carmen Aristegui and Carlos Loret de Mola were among those targeted.

The Mexican government issued a statement “categorically” denying spying on human rights defenders, journalists, anti-corruption activists or anyone else without proper judicial authorization.

Citizen Lab reported in February that the NSO Group spyware had been used against Mexican activists who campaigned against sugary drinks and junk food.

*************************************

President Enrique Peña Nieto, center, vowed last month to take concrete steps to ensure the safety of journalists in Mexico. Since 2011, the Mexican government has bought around $80 million worth of spyware for the stated purpose of combating crime. CreditAlfredo Estrella/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s most prominent human rights lawyers, journalists and anti-corruption activists have been targeted by advanced spyware sold to the Mexican government on the condition that it be used only to investigate criminals and terrorists.

The targets include lawyers looking into the mass disappearance of 43 students, a highly respected academic who helped write anti-corruption legislation, two of Mexico’s most influential journalists and an American representing victims of sexual abuse by the police. The spying even swept up family members, including a teenage boy.

Since 2011, at least three Mexican federal agencies have purchased about $80 million worth of spyware created by an Israeli cyberarms manufacturer. The software, known as Pegasus, infiltrates smartphones to monitor every detail of a person’s cellular life — calls, texts, email, contacts and calendars. It can even use the microphone and camera on phones for surveillance, turning a target’s smartphone into a personal bug.

The company that makes the software, the NSO Group, says it sells the tool exclusively to governments, with an explicit agreement that it be used only to battle terrorists or the drug cartels and criminal groups that have long kidnapped and killed Mexicans.

ding to dozens of messages examined by The New York Times and independent forensic analysts, the software has been used against some of the government’s most outspoken critics and their families, in what many view as an unprecedented effort to thwart the fight against the corruption infecting every limb of Mexican society.

“We are the new enemies of the state,” said Juan E. Pardinas, the general director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, who has pushed anti-corruption legislation. His iPhone, along with his wife’s, was targeted by the software, according to an independent analysis. “Ours is a society where democracy has been eroded,” he said.

The deployment of sophisticated cyberweaponry against citizens is a snapshot of the struggle for Mexico itself, raising profound legal and ethical questions for a government already facing severe criticism for its human rights record. Under Mexican law, only a federal judge can authorize the surveillance of private communications, and only when officials can demonstrate a sound basis for the request.

It is highly unlikely that the government received judicial approval to hack the phones, according to several former Mexican intelligence officials. Instead, they said, illegal surveillance is standard practice.

“Mexican security agencies wouldn’t ask for a court order, because they know they wouldn’t get one,” said Eduardo Guerrero, a former analyst at the Center for Investigation and National Security, Mexico’s intelligence agency and one of the government agencies that use the Pegasus spyware. “I mean, how could a judge authorize surveillance of someone dedicated to the protection of human rights?”

“There, of course, is no basis for that intervention, but that is besides the point,” he added. “No one in Mexico ever asks for permission to do so.”

The hacking attempts were highly personalized, striking critics with messages designed to inspire fear — and get them to click on a link that would provide unfettered access to their cellphones.

Carmen Aristegui, one of Mexico’s most famous journalists, was targeted by a spyware operator posing as the United States Embassy in Mexico, instructing her to click on a link to resolve an issue with her visa. The wife of Mr. Pardinas, the anti-corruption activist, was targeted with a message claiming to offer proof that he was having an extramarital affair.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: