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Mexican spy scandal escalates as study shows software targeted opposition

Pegasus software, sold to governments for use against terrorists and criminals, found to be used against people across ‘the political and civil society spectrum’

 Stickers with the image of the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, are stuck on columns outside the building of the attorney general’s office during a protest against alleged government spying.

Stickers with the image of the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, are stuck on columns outside the building of the attorney general’s office during a protest against alleged government spying. Photograph: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

The text messages seemed innocuous enough when they buzzed on to the smartphone of Roberto Gil, a senior member of Mexico’s opposition National Action Party.

“I wanted to share this report from [the Mexican newsweekly] Proceso where your name is mentioned,” said one.

“My husband just died. I’m sending you information about the wake,” read another.

“Do you see what the PRD [another opposition party] is saying about us? Take a look,” said the third message.

Each message carried a link, however, and, once clicked, they would have immediately allowed sophisticated spy software to infect Gil’s phone, tracking keystrokes, accessing contact lists and taking control of the phone’s cameras and microphone.

The spy software – known as Pegasus and made by the Israeli firm NSO Group – is only sold to governments, supposedly for use against terrorists and criminals. But an investigation by researchers at the University of Toronto revealed that it was deployed against Mexican anti-corruption crusaders, journalists investigating the president, and activists pushing for a soda tax.

Now the spying scandal has escalated after researchers showed that the same software was used to target senior members of the rightwing PAN party.

Opposition politicians and civil society activists alike have reacted with outrage at the revelation that they had been targeted alongside the crime groups which have pushed violence in Mexico to its highest levels in 20 years.

“There is clear evidence that the targets here cover the political and civil society spectrum in Mexico,” said John Scott-Railton, senior researcher at Citizen Lab, part of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Others have expressed concern that the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, is backsliding towards the worst excesses of authoritarianism that it displayed during more than 70 years of single-party rule.

“These are the actions of a non-democratic government,” said Fernando Rodríguez Doval, PAN communications director, who received one of the messages. The party’s president Ricardo Anaya also received a message. “We demand that the government not only investigate, but imprison those responsible.”

The scandal has marked a new low for the president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who came to power cast as a reformer, but whose approval rating now hovers in the teens. The fact that the spying was first reported on the front page of the New York Times has caused intense embarrassment for the image conscious administration currently preparing for tense Nafta renegotiations with a hostile US government.

The analysis by Citizen Lab found the messages were sent whenever sensitive political subjects came to prominence, such as congressional debate over anti-corruption legislation opposed by the government. PAN members also received infected messages after key state elections in 2016, in which voters punished the PRI over a string of corruption scandals.

The federal government has rejected the accusations and urged alleged victims to complain to the attorney general’s office – and hand over their mobile phones and passwords to the very organisation accused of carrying out the surveillance.

Peña Nieto pushed back, too. At a public appearance last week, he strayed from script to warn that the attorney general’s office would “apply the law against those who have levelled false accusations against the government”.

His office later revised his statements to say he misspoke and did not intend to threaten anyone, according to the New York Times.

Former attorney general Arely Gómez acknowledged using the spyware, according to Mexican media, saying it was used “within the legal framework the law establishes for combating organised crime.”

The PAN has called for an independent inquiry similar to one launched into the failed investigation into the abduction and murder of 43 teacher trainees in 2014.

“Espionage is a common practice [in politics] and we know it’s done,” said Rodríguez. “But it has to be said this is expensive software. It’s only sold to governments to be used against criminals and terrorists.”


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