Eighty-eight cases of attempted espionage against journalists and human rights workers through the use of spyware have been documented by researchers, a press conference in Mexico City was told today.
The Digital Rights Defense Network presented a report that claims that in each case the targets received a text message on a smartphone that when clicked installed spyware called Pegasus on the phone.
The software gives the attacker access to all the phone’s files and the ability to control the camera and microphone.
The story came to light earlier today through a report by the New York Times that highlighted the cases of well known journalists, human rights lawyers and an anti-corruption campaigner who had been targeted.
The cases detailed by the digital rights organization all had one common denominator — the federal government. And the attempts to install the spyware occurred when the targets were involved in critical issues. All took place in 2015 and 2016.
Personnel with the Centro Prodh human rights organization were targeted during the anniversary of alleged repression in Atenco, State of México, in 2006, while discussions were under way about new anti-torture legislation and at the same time a critical report was released on the disappearance of the 43 college students in Guerrero in 2014.
Journalist Carlos Loret de Mola received the mysterious text messages while writing about allegedly extrajudicial executions by security forces in Tanhuato, Michoacán, in 2015 and members of Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity were targeted while reporting on ghost companies created by ex-Veracruz governor Javier Duarte.
Today’s press conference called for an independent investigation and legal reforms that would create stricter control over the use of espionage tools.
“We demand accountability on the part of the Mexican government over the use of malware to conduct espionage, the opening of independent, exhaustive and transparent investigations as well as punishment for those responsible,” said Ana Cristina Ruelas, director of Article 19, a freedom-of-expression advocacy group.
In Mexico, she charged, spying has been converted into an effective mechanism to intimidate human rights defenders, activists and journalists.
All 88 cases were documented by Citizen Lab, a Canadian research organization that says civil society has come under threat in the last five years due to the misuse of powerful spyware tools sold exclusively to governments around the world.
A representative said the cases of spying in Mexico represented the clearest case yet of government espionage.