MEXICO: Government Illegally Spied on Activists, Journalists and Lawyers

Originally purchased from an Israeli company, the NSO Group, the software is sold to governments for use against terrorist or criminal groups. Photo (c) El Popular 2017Originally purchased from an Israeli company, the NSO Group, the software is sold to governments for use against terrorist or criminal groups. Photo (c) El Popular 2017

Prominent Mexican activists, journalists and lawyers were illegally spied upon by the Mexican Government using spyware which infected their smartphones. The spyware was installed on devices after targets were lured into clicking on messages. Such messages claimed, for example,  that a target’s spouse was having an extra-marital affair, or  that armed men were waiting outside a target’s home.

Individuals close to the targets were also infected by the spyware, including two members of staff working for the award-winning journalist Carmen Aristegui, as well as her underage son. Alongside Aristegui, fellow journalist Carlos Loret de Mola was also a victim of illegal surveillance, as were senior members of a prominent human rights group and an academic who had helped write anti-corruption legislation.

Carmen Aristegui. Photo (cc) Wikimedia

Carmen Aristegui. Photo (cc) Wikimedia

Once installed, the program named “Pegasus” allowed authorities to monitor the targets’ activities and correspondence. Emails, text-messages and location data could all be accessed. Moreover, the microphones and cameras of infected devices could be controlled, allowing authorities to bug those targeted.

Originally purchased from an Israeli company, the NSO Group, the software is sold to governments for use against terrorist or criminal groups. In Mexico, such technology has a clear application in monitoring and combating the drug cartels, which for over a decade have been responsible for tens of thousands of murders and disappearances. That such spyware appears also to have been illegally used against lawyers, journalists and activists will do nothing to alleviate concerns that the Mexican Government of Enrique Peña Nieto is undemocratic and corrupt.

Mexico's President, Enrique Peña Nieto. Photo (cc), Wikimedia, Aristóteles Sandoval

Mexico’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto. Photo (cc), Wikimedia, Aristóteles Sandoval

Corruption blights Mexico’s Government and its institutions at every level. The money, power and recourse to violence of the cartels ensure that criminality is rife. Within this context, journalists, academics, lawyers and activists fulfil a fundamentally important role in attempting to hold the state to account for its crimes, and its manifold failures to uphold the rule of law and protect its citizens.

Journalists have been essential in revealing instances of governmental corruption and in publicising the atrocities that have been committed against Mexico’s civilian population. The backlash against many journalists has been brutal, and Mexico is now recognised as one of the most dangerous places for journalists on the planet. Earlier this year, a paper local to Ciudad Juarez, Norte, shut down after nearly 30 years in business. Norte explained on its front page article (headlined “Adiós”) the reason for its closure: it had simply become far too dangerous to stay in print.

In a country where Freedom of the Press is already threatened by the intimidation of cartel thugs, it is unsettling to now see evidence that, rather than striving to protect those belonging to its Fourth Estate, the Mexican Government has instead taken to spying on them.

Similarly, in a country where torture and murder have become distressingly common, it is right to be disturbed by the Government’s surveillance of a prominent human rights group, the Centro PRODH. This group has been involved in high-profile investigations such as those relating to the Ayotzinapa disappearances, in which it is suspected that 43 students were murdered and their bodies destroyed. This case, since being opened in 2014, has continued to attract media attention because of the allegations of governmental corruption surrounding its handling.

The Ayotzinapa disappearances, still unresolved. Photo, (cc), Wikimedia, Adrián Cerón

The Ayotzinapa disappearances, still unresolved. Photo, (cc), Wikimedia, Adrián Cerón

Naturally, for any government to be spying illegally on its private citizens and independent media is cause for concern. Yet these revelations resonate particularly with Mexico’s recent history. The PRI government, which after a 12 year hiatus returned to power five years ago, ruled Mexico for over seventy years in the 20th Century. This period of governance was labelled by Nobel Prize Winner Mario Vargas Llosa as “the perfect dictatorship”. That is, while no PRI President stayed in power for more than his 6 year term, no opposition party was allowed to win an election. What is more, while it is true that under the PRI dictatorship there was no widespread repression on the scale of the Eastern Bloc countries (with some key exceptions), intellectuals, journalists, activists, and critics of the government were routinely intimidated and silenced. These breaches of privacy inevitably invite comparisons with the PRI’s Machiavellian and  repressive past. Yet if the PRI is up to its old tricks, it is doing so with a highly sophisticated, new set of toys.

While the Government has predictably denied hacking the nine known victims, it is extremely unlikely that the spyware could have been deployed by any other organisation or individual. Whether this was perpetrated by a rogue member of the Mexican Security Services or as part of an unofficially sanctioned investigation may never be known. What is more, it is remains to be seen if the full extent of this scandal has been uncovered. Perhaps over the coming months we can expect more revelations of this nature.