Advanced spyware purchased by Mexico to fight crime has been used against critics of the government and their families, the New York Times reported today.
The software, called Pegasus, infiltrates smartphones and monitors calls, texts, email and contacts and can use the device’s microphone and camera for surveillance.
An examination of dozens of messages by the newspaper and independent forensic analysts revealed that some of the government’s most outspoken critics — human rights lawyers, journalists and anti-corruption activists — have been targeted.
Among them was Juan Pardiñas, head of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, one of the organizations that led the campaign to implement the anti-corruption 3de3 initiative.
“We are the new enemies of the state,” he told the Times. “Ours is a society where democracy has been eroded.”
His iPhone and that of his wife were targeted with the spyware, according to independent analysis.
The hacking attempts were highly personalized, said the report, sending messages designed to inspire fear and get recipients to click on a link that would provide access to their phones.
Another target was journalist Carlos Loret de Mola, who received at least eight messages containing spyware. “They looked at journalists and thought, ‘They are bringing these things out and embarrassing us, so it’s better if we spy on them.’”
Journalist Carmen Aristegui, no friend of the current federal administration, began receiving suspicious text messages in 2015.
She had broken a story in 2014 revealing that a government contractor close to President Enrique Peña Nieto had given First Lady Angélica Rivera a special deal on a house.
The president was cleared of wrongdoing but Aristegui lost her job and says a sustained campaign of harassment followed. “It’s been about getting revenge for the piece,” she said. “There’s really no other way to see it.”
At a conference last year where the international panel known as the GIEI was to present its report on the disappearance of 43 teaching students in Iguala in 2014, the director of a human rights organization representing their parents received a text message.
“The government of Mexico gets out in front of the GIEI,” it read. Mario Patrón of Centro Prodh, a vocal critic of the government, clicked on the link but it went to a blank screen.
“We have always suspected they spied on us and listened to us,” Patrón said. “But to have evidence that we are victims of actual surveillance — it confirms that we are under threat. And that the government is willing to use illegal measures to try and stop us.”
At least three Mexican government agencies have purchased US $80 million worth of spyware created by an Israeli cyberarms manufacturer. The NSO Group, maker of the software, says it sells it exclusively to governments with an agreement that it is to be used only to fight terrorists or drug cartels and criminal groups.
There is no proof that the government was behind the smartphone spyware incidents but the NSO Group says the technology can only be used by the agency that had it installed.
The government denied that it had engaged in surveillance operations without prior judicial authorization.
Such authorization has probably not been given, according to former intelligence officials, who said illegal surveillance is standard practice.
Source: New York Times (en)