MEXICO CITY, Mexico - In a shocking expose, an internet watchdog group has revealed that Mexican journalists, lawyers and activists were targeted by a spyware.
The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto revealed in its report titled 'Reckless Exploit' that the spyware that targeted these communities in Mexico was produced by Israel's NSO Group and that it is sold exclusively to governments.
The internet watchdog group's investigation published this week stated that the targets included people such as prominent journalists Carmen Aristegui and Carlos Loret de Mola, who were investigating alleged government corruption and purported human rights abuses by security forces.
Other targets included members of the Centro Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez, a prominent human rights group that has investigated cases including the disappearance of 43 students whom police allegedly detained and turned over to drug gang killers; the anti-graft group Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity; and the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a civil society group working on economic policy and combatting corruption.
According to the report, the people targeted received messages with links that, if clicked on, opened up their devices to being exploited and spied upon.
Citizen Lab also said it documented at least 76 messages containing links to the security exploit and that many were sent in August 2015 or between April and July of the following year.
It said that the use of the software was so sloppy - sending multiple messages from the same domains or sending identically worded messages to multiple targets - as to suggest that the perpetrators wanted it to be known as a form of intimidation.
Citizen Lab said that Aristegui, who exposed a case of possible conflict of interest involving a luxury home acquired from a government contractor by President Enrique Pena Nieto's wife, was aggressively targeted.
The report stated that she received more than two-dozen messages with NSO links claiming to be from "the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, Amber Alerts, colleagues, people in her personal life, her bank, phone company and notifications of kidnappings."
It revealed further that some family members of the targets also received spyware messages, including Aristegui's son, a minor at the time received at least 21 of them.
The watchdog said, "The messages were both brazen and extremely obvious. ... Were these messages sent to lower-profile private individuals, the ruse may never have been discovered. But instead, the messages were sent to very high profile and well-known journalists, increasing the likelihood of discovery."
It stated that NSO's Pegasus spyware allows hackers access to phone calls, messages, cameras and personal data and the company has argued that it sells the product only to governments for the purposes of fighting crime and terrorism.
Citizen Lab however clarified in its report that it had "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."
The report further noted that the targets involved "domestic issues of immediate concern to powerful Mexican interests" and the government, and that "multiple government agencies in Mexico are reportedly NSO customers."
The report comes at a time when Mexican journalists and human rights defenders already feel under attack with reports stating that six journalists have been killed so far this year.
In light of the report, Mexico issued a statement saying that just like any other democratic country, it conducts intelligence operations to combat organized crime and defend national security.
The country has, however, denied any illegal spying activities.
It said, "The Government of the Republic categorically denies that any of its entities carries out actions of surveillance or intercepting communications from human rights defenders, journalists, anti-corruption activists or any other person without prior judicial authorization."
The media rights group Articulo 19's Ana Cristina Ruelas read out a statement at the news conference demanding the government make public any information it has on the spying revealed by the report and investigate possible punishments for those responsible.
The statement said, "Espionage in Mexico has become an effective mechanism of intimidation against human rights defenders, activists and journalists. It constitutes a form of control over the flow of information and abuse of power."
Further, the victims have also filed a complaint with the Attorney General's Office and have reported the case to National Human Rights Commission.
Commenting on the report, Aristegui said, "Enrique Pena Nieto must explain. We don't know if the journalists killed were spied on beforehand. We don't know if something happened, but in light of this we have a right to think it."
Further, Frank Smyth, executive director of the U.S. group Global Journalist Security, called Citizen Lab's report a reminder of the perils that spyware represents in an increasingly wired world.