Mexico Accused of Spying on Journalists and Activists with Spyware

The Mexican government has deployed sophisticated software to spy on journalists, activists and anti-graft groups as they worked to highlight some of the country's most notorious cases of crime, corruption and abuse of authority.

Targets received SMS messages with links which appeared legitimate but led to false sites and the installation of malware on their mobile phones, according to an investigation by the press freedom organization Article 19 and Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

The malware recorded keystrokes and compromised contact lists. It was used against targets ranging from activists pushing for soda taxes to journalists reporting on alleged army atrocities and the lawyers representing the families of the 43 teacher trainees abducted by police.

When unflattering stories hit the headlines, researchers say SMS messages carrying malware links would arrive on the targets' smartphones. Once activated, "it's game over," said John Scott Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab.

The spyware, produced by Israel's NSO Group, is only sold to governments, prompting researchers to conclude that the spying was state-sponsored -- though they cautioned it had "no conclusive evidence attributing these messages to specific government agencies in Mexico."

The scandal prompted outrage in Mexico, where attacks on the press and activists routinely end in impunity and where six journalists have been murdered in 2017.

"Espionage in Mexico has become an effective mechanism for intimidating human rights defenders, activists and journalists," said a statement from some of the alleged victims. "It makes it possible to control the flow of information as well as (allowing) abuses of power."

The spying marked the latest escalation in a tense relationship between the government of Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) and Mexican civil society.

Peña Nieto has promoted Mexico internationally as progressive and reformist and his actively denounced a deterioration of democracy...

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