Mexican journalists and activists denounce the government for alleged espionage via malware

*Ed. note: This post was updated to include a statement from the Mexican government and to clarify that both The New York Times and Citizen Lab released reports about the alleged espionage. It was also updated to include a note from Citizen Lab concerning the source of the messages.​

After The New York Times published an investigation reporting the use of malware to infect devices of journalists and critics of the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, a group of journalists and human rights defenders in that country formally denounced a spying case allegedly carried out against them by Government agencies.

Hours later, the Mexican Presidency denied, through a letter addressed to The New York Times, that there was evidence that any government agency was behind the alleged espionage.

On its June 19 front page, the U.S. newspaper published an investigation, which reveals that a group of renowned journalists, anti-corruption activists and human rights defenders have been victims of spyware sold to the Mexican government. The original purpose of the program is to monitor criminal and terrorist groups.

The attack comes via software called Pegasus, developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, which infects cell phones to monitor messages, e-mails and contacts, and is also capable of using the microphone and camera of the devices to watch over their owners.

The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto carried out a parallel investigation revealing that among the media representatives who were victims of this espionage technique are Carmen Aristegui and her collaborators Rafael Cabrera and Sebastián Barragan. Salvador Camarena and Daniel Lizárraga, who participated in Aristegui’s investigation of the white house of Enrique Peña Nieto, and who currently collaborate with the site Mexicanos contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad (Mexicans against Corruption and Impunity), are also mentioned. The host of the Televisa morning news program Carlos Loret de Mola is also among those affected.

Aristegui’s son, who at the time of the alleged interventions was a minor, is also on the list of people spied upon that was revealed by Citizen Lab, and presented at a press conference of the organization Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (Network in Defense of Digital Rights). The conference was held in Mexico City with representatives of Citizen Lab, organization Article 19 Mexico and several of those affected.

The conference took place after the presentation of the complaint for the crimes of intervention of private communication and illicit access to systems and computer equipment before the Attorney General's Office.

"We are obliged as a society to demand from those institutions, which we pay, to respond to this complaint and all the others [...] Although it seems meaningless to demand that they investigate themselves, we must take that step," Aristegui said at the press conference. "What does the Government of Mexico say about this, which is the clearest abuse that has been documented of these technologies being used by a government against citizens?"

The journalist said that this investigation published by The New York Times is of great value for Mexican society, where impunity is an idea that prevails in the cases of attacks on journalists, partly due to lack of hard evidence in those cases. The investigation, she said, is irrefutable proof of harassment of journalists and actions against freedom of expression.

The reported espionage was done through malware that infiltrated the victims' mobile devices through text messages that included a link that, when opened, gave access to the installation of software.

According to the Citizen Lab report, Aristegui, her son and her collaborators received 56 of those messages between 2015 and 2016. Carlos Loret de Mola received eight messages in the same time period, while Salvador Camarena and Daniel Lizárraga received at least three such SMS in May 2016.

As highlighted by Citizen Lab, the dates on which the messages were received coincide in time with the coverage that the journalists produced on cases sensitive to the Government. In the case of Aristegui, the spying coincides with the moments of her reports on the white house of President Enrique Peña Nieto, the plagiarism of his thesis and various violations of human rights in Mexico.

The messages to Camarena and Lizárraga arrived when Mexicans against Corruption and Impunity published investigations into acts of corruption by the former Governor of Veracruz Javier Duarte and by the former director of the National Water Commission.

"It cannot be a coincidence that precisely in the most difficult moments of this government, when they had to give explanations about killings, executions, acts of corruption and the cases that human rights defenders have followed, far from providing the necessary institutional responses, what happened was espionage," said Aristegui, who took advantage of the press conference to ask the President of Mexico for an explanation of the case. "Everything leads to the Presidency, there is no doubt that the agents of the Mexican state who have the potential of acquiring this technology are the Army, the PGR, CISEN [Center for Research and National Security]. There is documentation that they have acquired this type of technology. "

Loret de Mola, who received the messages with the malware after the publication of his work on extrajudicial executions by the Federal Police in Tanhuato, Michoacán, said that this espionage case is not a minor case, even in the middle of a climate of violence that includes the recent killing of several journalists in the country.

"It does not seem to me to be a minor issue, not even in such a violent context, because through espionage the door is opened to intimidation, harassment, censorship, dismissals, beatings, levantones [a kind of kidnapping unique to organized crime], kidnappings, disappearances, murders, the impunity that favors that none of this is investigated, that none of this be punished. Everything goes in the same direction," he said in a video message that was posted on his social networks. "It is clear that they want us to know that they are spying on us, they want to make us feel vulnerable. They have already created a climate of insecurity, fear and impunity for all those who seek to spread uncomfortable truths."

The Mexican Presidency said in its letter to The New York Times that there isn't evidence that government agencies are responsible of the espionage described in the article, and condemned all attempts to infringe upon the people's privacy.

"For the government of the Republic, the respect of privacy and the protection of personal data of all individuals are inherent values of our liberty, democracy and rule of law," said the letter, which was published on social media by the Presidency's spokesperson.

Citizen Lab also said it has "no conclusive evidence attributing these messages to specific government agencies in Mexico. However, circumstantial evidence suggests that one or more of NSO's government customers in Mexico are the likely operators."

NSO Group, a software developer, only sells the spying system to government agencies on condition that it is used only against criminal groups. According to The New York Times report, the cost of using software against 10 iPhone users is $650,000, plus a $500,000 installation fee.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.