Fifty persons close to Mexico’s president are among the NSO’s prospective targets | Mexico

Fifty persons close to Mexico’s president are among the NSO’s prospective targets | Mexico

by Nina Lakhani in Mexico City
Mon 19 Jul 2021 17.00 BST

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, left, and Enrique Peña Nieto at a press conference in 2018. Composite: AFP/Getty Images
Numbers of 15,000 Mexicans including politicians, journalists, judges, activists and teachers appear in leak

At least 50 people close to Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador – including his wife, children, aides and doctor – were included in a leaked list of numbers selected by government clients of the Israeli spyware company NSO Group before his election.

Politicians from every party, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, prosecutors, diplomats, teachers, judges, doctors and academics, were also among more than 15,000 individuals selected as possible targets for surveillance between 2016 and 2017, according to an investigation by a collaboration of international media outlets including the Guardian.

The extraordinary number of Mexican numbers in the leaked data – including phones belonging to priests, victims of state-sponsored crimes and the children of high-profile figures – severely undermines NSO’s claims that its hacking software is only used by its clients to fight serious crime and terrorism.

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Contracts with NSO would be likely to have cost hundreds of millions of dollars, in a country where about half the population lives in poverty.

“Mexico’s capacity to spy on its citizens is immense. it’s extremely easy for the technology and the information obtained through the spyware to fall into private hands – be it organised crime or commercial,” said Jorge Rebolledo, a Mexico City security consultant. “What we know about is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Andrés Manuel López Obrador
The data leak is a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that, since 2016, are believed to have been selected as belonging to people of interest by government clients of NSO Group.

While the leak reveals phone numbers that were targeted for potential surveillance by NSO’s Pegasus clients, it is not possible to say whether phones were successfully infected with the spyware without forensic analysis of each device. But technical analysis of more than 40 phones from around the world whose numbers were included in the data found evidence they were breached using Pegasus spyware. The records cover a period towards the end of one of the most scandal-ridden Mexican administrations in recent history. At the time, the then president, Enrique Peña Nieto, and his Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) were tanking in the polls – which may explain the lengths to which the government went to spy on his populist rival.

The findings reflect warnings from security experts that cybersurveillance is unregulated and out of control in Mexico – a country where federal and state governments have long used informants, infiltrators and listening devices to monitor and repress dissent. Mexico was the first country in the world to buy Pegasus from NSO and became something of a laboratory for the spy technology, which at the time was in its infancy.

The defence ministry was the first to acquire the spyware in 2011 – five years after the armed forces were deployed in the “war against drugs”. When the deal was made, Mexico’s police, army and navy had already been implicated in systematic human rights abuses including torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his wife, Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his wife, Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller. Photograph: Hector Vivas/Getty Images
Other Mexican agencies that bought and/or operated Pegasus include the attorney general’s office and the national security intelligence service (Cisen). Several state security forces are also believed to have access to the spyware, and pervasive corruption has prompted concerns that it could end up in the wrong hands.

In 2012, Peña Nieto, a young, well-groomed politician touted as a reformer, beat López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, to return the PRI to power after a 12-year hiatus. Peña Nieto promised to take Mexico to its rightful place on the world stage. But a string of corruption scandals, human rights abuses and cover-ups soon tarnished his reputation. Meanwhile López Obrador, known as Amlo, was already planning another run for the presidency – and his party, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), was gaining ground in local elections.

Pegasus: the spyware technology that threatens democracy – video
04:55
Pegasus: the spyware technology that threatens democracy – video
As Amlo crisscrossed the country campaigning, however, NSO’s Mexican clients selected almost everyone in his inner circle as persons of interest – including his wife, three sons, three brothers and two former chauffeurs, according to analysis of the leaked data. Amlo rarely used his own phone, relying instead on those of his assistant and communications chief – both of which were selected. His chief of staff, Alfonso Romo, his legal counsel, Julio Scherer Ibarra, and his communications coordinator, Jesús Ramírez Cuevas, were also selected. Even the manager of the amateur baseball team Amlo plays in was selected – as was his cardiologist, Patricio Heriberto Ortíz Fernández.

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