Mexico’s spyware scandal has widened as politicians from the conservative National Action Party (PAN) have been revealed as targets of the software purchased by the Mexican government and allegedly used to monitor its critics.
Citizen Lab — a multidisciplinary research unit based at the University of Toronto in Canada — disclosed that Senator Roberto Gil Zuarth, party president Ricardo Anaya Cortés and communications secretary Fernando Rodríguez Doval were all targeted with infection attempts between June and July 2016.
The company sells the software under the condition that it only be used to monitor criminals and terrorists.
Citizen Lab has confirmed that text messages sent to the politicians’ cell phones contained links that attempted to lure them to inadvertently install the spyware software.
The politicians provided the messages to Citizen Lab for analysis and agreed to allow publication of the findings.
Senator Roberto Gil Zuarth was sent three infection attempts in the form of links accompanying text messages between June 15 and June 17, 2016, a time when he was serving as the Senate president.
The first message supposedly contained a link to an article in which he had been mentioned by the political magazine Proceso.
“Senator . . . I wanted to share this report from Proceso where your name is mentioned.”
The other two were more personal in nature. One was supposedly from a friend whose husband had just died.
“I am sending you information about the wake. I hope you can attend.”
The other claimed to be from a colleague and encouraged the senator to click a link to see what members of the rival Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) had supposedly been saying about them.
“Hey Roberto, did you see what PRD is saying about us to get credibility, take a look.”
All of the messages contained links to domains that Citizen Lab had previously identified as being part of the NSO exploit infrastructure.
In other words, if he had clicked on the links his phone would have been infected with the Pegasus spyware.
Anaya Cortés was sent a text message on June 15, 2016 that also claimed to contain a link to a Proceso magazine article. The link once again pointed to an NSO exploit domain.
Rodríguez Doval received a similar message on July 14 saying that he too had been mentioned in a viral Proceso story and again the message contained a link to an exploit domain.
Citizen Lab stated that while they were “not privy to the reasons behind the timing of the targeting,” it suggested that it might be related to the fact that anti-corruption legislation was being discussed in Congress at that time.
In a press release, PAN president Ricardo Anaya said, “It’s unacceptable that attempts have been made to infect telephones of PAN members with a program that can only be acquired by the government to fight organized crime.”
The party has called on the government to investigate and imprison those responsible for the breach.
A June 19 report by the New York Times has already identified human rights lawyers, anti-corruption activists, prominent journalists and even a minor as targets of the spyware.
Food scientists and anti-obesity campaigners who supported the introduction of a tax on soda were also previously targeted with Pegasus.
President Enrique Peña Nieto has strongly denied that the government has misused the Pegasus spyware or that it was behind the attempts to install the surveillance software on the smartphones of government critics.
“This government categorically rejects any sort of intervention in the private lives of any citizen.”