Mexican journalists, activists targeted with spyware

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Mexico's government appears to have been using advanced spyware created for criminal investigations to target some of the country's most prominent journalists, lawyers and anti-corruption activists.

It was used against targets ranging from activists pushing for soda taxes to journalists reporting on alleged army atrocities and the lawyers representing the families of the 43 teacher trainees abducted by police.

"We condemn any attempt to violate the right to privacy of any person", the statement said. Once activated, "it's game over", said John Scott Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab.

The company, which claims it only sells Pegasus to governments, says it has an agreement with clients that the software be used only to target terrorists and criminals.

The group said at a press conference that it has pressed charges with the attorney general's office, accusing the government of illegally accessing private communications and other offenses.

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Among those swept up in the hacking: activists with the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Center for Human Rights (Centro Prodh); members of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO); journalists working for the Mexican nonprofit Against Corruption and Impunity; and other journalists working at Aristegui Noticias, the news site run by Carmen Aristegui; and Carlos Loret de Mola, an anchor for TV network Televisa. "It constitutes a form of control over the flow of information and abuse of power". Its director, Juan Pardinas, told New York Times his wife received erroneous messages alleging an extramarital affair and stories of armed individuals outside their home as an enticement to click the included link.

The spying marked the latest escalation in a tense relationship between the government of Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) and Mexican civil society. It's unclear why Aristegui and the others were targeted, although she and numerous other targeted journalists were investigating the "Casa Blanca" scandal, in which Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is accused of receiving a multimillion-dollar mansion from a favored contractor. After repeated failed phishing attacks, the software was used to target her son - a minor who was attending school in the United States at the time.

"We are the new enemies of the state", he said.

"Espionage in Mexico has become an effective mechanism of intimidation against human rights defenders, activists and journalists", it said.

Citizen Lab believes the campaign was orchestrated by the Israeli spyware vendor NSO Group, based on similarities in the code of the spyware and the host domains where it was stored.