Mexico's Government Is Accused Of Targeting Journalists And Activists With Spyware : Parallels "Like any good attack, this one begins with deception," says an investigator. Phishing text messages, including one that appeared to come from the U.S. embassy, were sent to a dozen targets.
NPR logo

Mexico's Government Is Accused Of Targeting Journalists And Activists With Spyware

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/533682738/533698534" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Mexico's Government Is Accused Of Targeting Journalists And Activists With Spyware

Mexico's Government Is Accused Of Targeting Journalists And Activists With Spyware

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/533682738/533698534" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Mexico, a handful of journalists, activists and lawyers have filed a criminal complaint saying the government has been hacking their cell phones. James Fredrick has the story from Mexico City.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: The complaint was filed after the release of a report on Monday claiming the Mexican government has been hacking people it sees as a threat. Cyber surveillance researchers with the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab discovered the spying in odd text messages targets were receiving. It starts with a common hacking technique known as phishing, researcher John Scott-Railton tells me from a press conference.

JOHN SCOTT-RAILTON: Like any good attack, this one begins with deception. And the deception is designed to trick the target into clicking a link.

FREDRICK: Targets received personal and manipulative text messages. But buried in there, Scott-Railton spotted a powerful malware called Pegasus.

SCOTT-RAILTON: Once a phone is infected, it becomes a mobile spy in the pocket of the victim. All of the personal and work activities that happen on the phone can all be pulled from the phone.

FREDRICK: A report by Citizen Lab and Mexican researchers R3D and SocialTIC identified 12 targets. Among them, journalists, activists and lawyers all targeted while investigating or pressuring the Mexican government. The report points the finger straight at the Mexican government, which had the help of an Israeli firm called NSO Group. It sells advanced surveillance software exclusively to governments.

Mexico's attorney general's office and defense ministry are among its clients. Scott-Railton has been following cyber surveillance for a few years but...

SCOTT-RAILTON: This is the most reckless case of the use of this kind of expensive software that we're aware of.

FREDRICK: Human rights lawyer Santiago Aguirre joined with eight others in their complaint against the government. He was hacked in April 2016, according to the report, the same month a call with one of his clients was leaked to the press.

SANTIAGO AGUIRRE: A government that acts as if critical journalists and human rights defenders were the enemy is a government that simply cannot be understood as a democratic government.

FREDRICK: In a statement, the president's office says there's no concrete proof the government carried out the hacks. But they invited other targets to bring evidence forward so they can investigate - an ironic request to the people who accuse you of spying. For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.