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Courage condemns surveillance on Mexican activists

The software sends fake texts with links that provide full access to a target’s phone

The Mexican government has been accused of using surveillance software to spy on activists, reporters and human rights defenders. In recent public remarks, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto finally acknowledged that his government purchased the Israeli-made spyware, called Pegasus, but declined to provide evidence clearing him or his government from the allegations made by Civil Society.

The president’s remarks are alarming and Courage condemns governmental targeted surveillance, which threatens free expression and dissent.

Courage Trustee Renata Avila said,

Mexico is a member of the Freedom Online Coalition and a member of the Open Government Partnership. The Mexican government’s massive purchases and unaccountable deployment of spying technologies erode fundamental rights and are directly contradict what the its leaders preach in the international arena. That cannot go unquestioned. In a country where impunity is rampant, whistleblowers are more than necessary. In a country where journalists get killed every week, digital privacy becomes a matter of life or death.

Pegasus was created by the NSO Group, which says it only sells the software to governments on the condition that it be used against criminals and terrorists. It uses text messages to get targets to click on links that provide full access to a smartphone’s data, camera and microphone.

NSO Group made headlines in 2016, when Pegasus was first uncovered. Researchers from Citizen Lab and Lookout called it “one of the most sophisticated pieces of cyberespionage software we’ve ever seen.”

Citizen Lab, a Canadian laboratory monitoring the intersection of technology and human rights, reports that Pegasus was used against scientists and NGO directors. In February, Citizen Lab wrote, “All of the targets have been active supporters of Mexico’s soda tax, a public health measure to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks,” so Pegasus “may have been misused on behalf of special commercial interests, not for fighting crime or terrorism.”

A New York Times report in June concluded further that the program was used against journalists, anti-corruption activists and even their family members. Juan E. Pardinas, the general director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, said, “We are the new enemies of the state.” The Times reports that Mr. Pardinas’ wife was targeted by Pegasus.

Citizen Lab listed some of the types of text messages used as bait:

  • Upsetting fake news updates suggesting personal scandals
  • Upsetting personal messages, like the news of the death of a relative, or injury of a child
  • Personal sexual taunts and allegations

The Mexican government has denied using Pegasus against journalists or activists, and because the programme doesn’t leave fingerprints behind, it’s very difficult to prove attribution. However, experts are confident of the government’s involvement based on circumstantial evidence and the fact that it’s highly unlikely that a third party could obtain the spyware.

Courage denounces President Peña Nieto’s unaccountable use of surveillance technology and extends its solidarity and support to those working to bring the government’s surveillance to light.