Government Spyware Targets Journalists and Family Members in Mexico
Just as the focus is on investigations into Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 election, the United States’ neighbor to the south finds itself caught in a maelstrom of corruption. Reports are circulating that citizens of Mexico have been targeted by advanced spyware called Pegasus. Among those targeted are Mexican journalists and their family members, human rights defenders, and lawyers who are looking into the mass disappearance of 43 students.
According to the New York Times, an investigation carried out by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and Mexican digital rights organizations reported that targets were “lured” by text messages to their smartphones, which opened a link, allowing the sender control over the device and its communications. The sender would have access to calls, texts, emails, locations, and could even allow the camera and microphone to be used for surveillance.
So far several Mexican government agencies were implicated in the scandal. Those agencies, however, may be just the tip of the iceberg. Proceso magazine’s Jorge Carrasco Araizaga writes: “Anybody with resources in Mexico spies. It has always been done by the federal and state governments, civilian institutions, and the military. Also police agencies and businesses, not to mention the U.S. services, including the Pentagon, which (ex-president) Felipe Calderon let into his government.”
The spyware Pegasus could have been purchased, and used as far back as 2011 when, according to the same Times report, “at least three Mexican Federal agencies purchased about $80 million worth of spyware created by an Israeli cyber arms manufacturer.” The software manufacturer claims that the spyware is sold only to governments, and is only to be used to help track down and fight terrorists, drug cartels and other criminal enterprises that are responsible for harming and killing Mexicans.
Despite assurances that it would be used to fight crime, the spyware has still been used to target citizens. Some of the citizens and their families have been some of the government’s most outspoken critics. At one point, the teenage son of a journalist was targeted by the spyware. “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. The Times also points out that it is highly unlikely that the security agencies received judicial approval to use the spyware, instead finding that this sort of illegal surveillance is “standard practice.”
This spying scandal is just one more in a long and growing list of countries and agencies usurping citizen privacy. The use of illegal spyware on private citizens is and should be treated as a grave matter that flies directly in the face of human rights. Especially when considered that many of those targeted were human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists who were highly critical of the state of Mexico’s government. Worse or not, two major nations dealing with privacy related scandal is worrisome, and will only cause the debate over spying to grow.
The mainstream media’s focus on the reporting of the Russia-Trump scandal is troubling when you consider that there are far more egregious privacy violations committed by other countries that are largely underreported.
Conor Baker, Caracal Reports