The IPI global network is alarmed by new revelations that journalists and activists in Mexico have been targeted by Pegasus, spyware developed by the Israeli cyber-arms company NSO Group. We call on Mexican authorities to conduct a full and transparent investigation into the use of this surveillance technology to snoop on the press and other public watchdogs.
A joint investigation led by civil society organizations in Mexico and Toronto-based Citizen Lab has identified three new cases of surveillance using Pegasus spyware, targeting two journalists and one human rights advocate between 2019 and 2021.
According to Citizen Lab’s report, each of the hackings occurred around the time the target, or the target’s media outlet, had published information critical of the Mexican authorities, including reports that documented human rights abuses. Journalist Ricardo Raphael was hacked at least three times in 2019, and once more in 2020. Raphael had been a victim of previous Pegasus infections dating back to 2016. The hackings have frequently occurred during periods in which Raphael was covering the 2014 disappearance of 43 Mexican students.
A journalist from Animal Politico, whose name The Citizen Lab did not reveal, was hacked in 2021 on the same day in which the outlet published information about human rights violations by Mexico’s military. Well-known human rights defender Raymundo Ramos was also targeted in 2020. The victims have filed a complaint seeking to initiate a criminal investigation, according to Reuters.
In these cases, Citizen Lab said the spyware operators used zero-click attacks to gain access to the target’s device. This means that targets did not even need to click on a malicious link to activate the spyware. Pegasus’s use of zero-click attacks has made it an especially pernicious tool.
In response to these revelations, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador denied that the government spied on journalists, according to Reuters. “It’s not true that journalists or opponents are spied on”, Lopez Obrador said, claiming that the military undertakes intelligence work, which he said is “not spying”. Lopez Obrador had previously vowed not to use the software after it was reported that it was deployed under Mexico’s previous government.
“IPI is extremely alarmed by this fresh evidence of the use Pegasus spyware in Mexico, which puts the country’s journalists and civil society at risk”, IPI Director of Advocacy Amy Brouillette said. “In these cases, journalists and human rights defenders appear to have been targeted in connection with their documentation or coverage of human rights abuses — which would be an obvious and outrageous abuse of state surveillance that underscores how dangerous this spyware is. It is all the more disturbing that this surveillance occurred under the watch of President Lopez Obrador despite his vows not to use Pegasus.
“We call on President Lopez Obrador to ensure a prompt and comprehensive investigation into these allegations and to hold those responsible for these attacks on press freedom and privacy to account. Amid continued evidence of abuse, the Mexican authorities must halt its use of spyware technology, and we repeat our call on states around the world to agree to a global moratorium on the sale and transfer of spyware technology until an appropriate regulatory framework is established.”
IPI reported in 2020 about the widespread use of Pegasus in several countries. That included Mexico, while the number of undetected attacks was believed to be higher than initially reported.
Mexico is considered to be one of the most dangerous countries for journalists and is estimated to be the world’s deadliest for media professionals. This year alone, 15 journalists have been killed.