Israeli Pegasus returns to Mexico as concerns grow among dissidents
Researchers at Citizen Lab uncover the phones of Mexican activists and journalists that have been infected by Pegasus, despite the Mexican president having pledged to end the history of spying on opponents.
Despite the Mexican government's pledges claiming it will cease exploiting the contentious Pegasus spyware, an investigation on Sunday discovered that at least three human rights investigators' phones in Mexico had been breached by Israeli NSO's spyware Pegasus.
Manuel Lopez Obrador, who assumed office in 2018, swore to quit using the technology after a scandal emerged over its usage under his predecessor's presidency.
What is Pegasus? How does it function?
As a spyware, Pegasus, which has the capability to infect billions of phones running either iOS or Android operating systems, silently infiltrates your phone, takes hold of your data, and turns your device into a 24/7 surveillance unit.
It can copy all your messages, harvest your photos, and record your calls. It might even infiltrate your camera and microphone and secretly film you and eavesdrop on your conversations. It can also potentially pinpoint your location, anytime, anywhere.
For governments and spying agencies, the software is quite the dream come true, but for dissidents, journalists, and the general populace, Pegasus is a nightmare.
The mastermind behind this hacking software is none other than the Israeli firm NSO Group.
Mexico, Pegasus, and human rights activists
Two journalists and a human rights activist's phones were examined by researchers at Citizen Lab, a digital watchdog group at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. They discovered that the smartphones had been infected with Pegasus in 2019, 2020, and 2021.
The three victims documented human rights violations allegedly committed by the Mexican armed forces and disclosed their findings in a report published by the Mexican group for digital rights advocacy known as R3D.
Requests for a response from the defense ministry and Lopez Obrador's team were not immediately fulfilled.
Unfolding since 2017
In 2021, Lopez Obrador declared that Mexico had "no longer any relation" with Mexico and at the time, Mexico's chief of financial crimes asserted that the government had not entered into any agreements with the firms that provided the software.
Citizen Lab had previously discovered the usage of the Pegasus spyware by the Mexican government during the administration of former President Enrique Pena Nieto in 2017. This raised concerns about the lengths to which government agents and officials would go in order to monitor activists, journalists, and politicians, especially those who were critical of the administration.
The future of Pegasus in Mexico
The new findings by Citizen Lab call for questioning Mexico's current president's intentions and allegations with regard to Pegasus. In other words, it raised questions as to whether or not Obrador has lived up to his pledge to put an end to a history of spying on opponents in Mexico.
Furthermore, as a result of the most recent discoveries, concerns regarding the difficulties faced by journalists and human rights advocates in a nation where they have frequently come under assault, grow.
Citizen Lab findings
According to Citizen Lab and R3D, Pegasus targeted activist Raymundo Ramos in August and September 2020. Ramos assisted victims of alleged military violations in the hostile northern border state of Tamaulipas.
Earlier, during an interview with Reuters, Ramos had noted that he has expected that the government was spying on him for a long time now. Since he knew of the findings, Ramos said he had been taking stricter measures to protect his privacy. That included having more in-person conversations and leaving his mobile phone in a separate location.
"I am on high alert," Ramos told Reuters, "This isn't just any hacker ... Someone has set their sights on you."
In October and November of 2019 as well as in December of 2020, Pegasus targeted journalist Ricardo Raphael's phone, according to the findings. Raphael is a journalist for the news agencies Proceso and Milenio. He is also a host on channel ADN40.
They also discovered one infected phone in 2021 belonging to a journalist at the Animal Politico news agency. The journalist preferred to remain anonymous.
A victim of Pegasus
Pegasus has also been used as a tool for murder. According to The Guardian, Cecilio Pineda Birto, a 38-year-old freelance reporter in Mexico, was shot dead on March 2, 2017. Prior to the incident, Pineda had received a number of anonymous death threats. At about the same time, his mobile phone number was selected as a possible target for surveillance by a Mexican client of the NSO Group spyware company. His attackers knew exactly where to find him, although his exact whereabouts were known to no one.
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