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Mexican government used spyware meant for terrorist to target experts investigating case of 43 missing students

July 13, 2017  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
Mexican government used spyware meant for terrorist to target experts investigating case of 43 missing students

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Disclosures revealed the Mexican government has been utilizing spyware meant to pursue terrorists to target reporters, opposing politicians, activists, and others instead, an allegation that intensified on Monday when a report uncovered evidence that the tools had also been used for international officials investigating the high-profile disappearance of 43 students back in 2014.

The surveillance technology used was Pegasus, a software produced by the NSO Group, an Israeli arms company. It uses phishing links to hack phones, and once a device is infiltrated, the software can observe a person’s every move including phone calls, emails, and texts, causing encryption to be useless, The New York Times reported. It also can take over the device’s microphone and camera to record.

Since 2011, federal agencies in Mexico have bought roughly $80 million worth of spyware. NSO Group posits that it only sells spyware to governments under the provision that the software will be used to control terrorist activity or criminal groups, like the cartels that have contributed to ongoing violence in Mexico.

However, abuse is not unheard of – the United Arab Emirates reportedly used Pegasus to target a human rights activist in 2016.

The Mexican government used the spyware to target the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights who were conducting an investigation into the sudden disappearance of 43 students in 2014.

Currently, forensic evidence examined by Citizen Lab, a research lab at the University of Toronto, indicated that a team of five investigators reviewing the case was also targeted last year. They are part of a burgeoning list of 19 people in which Citizen Lab has confirmed were targets of the NSO software, including attorneys for a Mexican human rights group also looking into the student disappearances. The hacking attempts came at a time when the investigators were criticizing the Mexican government for interfering with their work and preparing their final report on the case.

The group, which included specialists from Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, and Spain, was selected by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and went to Mexico to conduct an investigation into the sudden disappearance of 43 students in 2014. It appeared to proclaim an exceptional moment of transparency after intense outcry and frustration at the government’s failure to act.

The students who were from a rural teacher training school in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, were intercepted by authorities on their way to a demonstration.

After officers had begun shooting at their buses, murdering six people, police escorted the students into patrol cars, and they have never been heard from again. Three years after the incident, the remains of only one victim have been identified.

The government insists that the massacre was the result of local police working with drug cartels, and concluded with a mass incineration at a local dump. However, the investigative task force ultimately came to question key parts of the narrative: Weather records showed it was raining on the night of the disappearance, and they discovered no evidence of a large-scale fire or fragments of bones.

The missing 43 teacher-students were believed to be executed by a local drug cartel in Guerrero

They also couldn’t determine a motive for the killings.

However, they were not able to solve the mystery. Detectives say the government declined to cooperate and engineered a “smear campaign” undermining their work.

The spyware infection attempts reportedly took place in March 2016, just as investigators were accusing the government of interference. The group’s executive secretary, who organized all the team’s movements, received two texts from someone acting as a friend whose father had died; links added in the text were allegedly meant to share information about the funeral. The web links were consistent with NSO spyware. Other detectives on the team also were sent the same texts.

It is not clear who requested the spying – even NSO Group cannot determine where the phishing efforts originated. Under Mexican law, spying must be approved by a federal judge but is unlikely any judge would have signed off on such surveillance, because the investigators, who worked for the Inter-American Commission, were guarded by diplomatic immunity.

“If this can happen to an independent body that has immunity that is invited by the government, it is scary to think of what could happen to a citizen of Mexico,” Francisco Cox, one of the investigators, said in an interview with The New York Times.

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