Oct 4, 2022 - World

Mexico's president denies his government spied on journalists with Pegasus software

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador raises his hand and uses the other to hold a microphone while he speaks at a news briefing

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Sept. 30. Photo: Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Despite Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s professed opposition to his predecessor’s use of Pegasus spyware on journalists, the practice has continued since he took office, a new report says.

Driving the news: The cellphones of at least two Mexican journalists and a human rights defender were infected with the Pegasus software between 2019 and 2021, according to the report from a group of digital rights organizations, including the Network for the Defense of Digital Rights and Article 19. López Obrador’s term started in 2018.

Catch up quick: The Pegasus spyware program, made by the Israeli NSO Group, exploits flaws in operating systems and software to access cell phone content. It's only sold to governments and law enforcement agencies, NSO Group has said. NSO Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

  • Several countries like Mexico and Saudi Arabia have used the software to target journalists, human rights defenders and health advocates.
  • In 2017, the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab revealed the administration of former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto used the software to spy on the nation’s top journalists and activists.
  • López Obrador was critical of Peña Nieto's use of the spyware and has said on several occasions his government wouldn’t use it.

Yes, but: The new report, published Sunday, found human rights defender Raymundo Ramos was targeted by the Pegasus software at least three times between August and September 2020.

  • The report also found that journalist and author Ricardo Raphael was also targeted three times between October 2019 and December 2020, and an unnamed journalist who worked for the independent digital news site Animal Político was targeted in 2021. Both journalists worked on story about corruption, the report said.
  • Citizen lab worked with the groups to confirm the infections through forensic investigation.

What they're saying: If López Obrador "did not know about this, that's major, because it'd suggest the Army is spying without authorization," Daniel Moreno, editorial director of Animal Político, said in a news conference yesterday.

  • "If the president knew, that's major, because he's repeatedly said he would not use this spyware," he added.
  • López Obrador said during his daily media briefing today that the government doesn't spy on people. "Adversaries will come up with anything to make a fuss," he said.

The big picture: The report follows the release of terabytes of data, including thousands of emails from the Mexican armed forces and military reports, by hacker group Guacamaya last week.

  • The documents included copies of 2019 purchase orders by the defense secretary to use Pegasus, the digital rights groups say.
  • López Obrador has confirmed other documents released in the hack, including those related to his health, are legitimate.
  • Two weeks ago, Guacamaya released thousands of similar documents from a hack to Chile’s armed forces, including internal warnings of possible excessive violence in the Araucanía region, where the military is patrolling Mapuche Indigenous areas under an emergency declaration due to attacks against mining companies. The hack led to the resignation of Chile's chairman for the joint chiefs of staff.
  • Guacamaya says that it has also obtained documents from Peru, Colombia and El Salvador. A message posted mid-September by the group in the website Enlace Hacktivista says that the cache has been shared with organizations and media “that can legitimately do their part based on the information.”
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