Reckless abuse of surveillance spyware sold to governments (again)


We keep seeing a common theme when it comes to spyware sold exclusively to governments, surveillance spyware which is marketed as lawful tools to help governments fight crime and terrorism; those remote intrusion solutions are increasingly used to spy on people who the governments consider to be a threat because those people are revealing the truth to the public. The latest example comes from Mexico, showing how powerful spyware was used to target journalists investigating high-level official corruption and human rights defenders investigating government-sponsored human rights abuses.

The surveillance spyware Pegasus (pdf), sold by the Israel-based NSO Group, is meant to remotely take complete control of mobile phones. While this isn’t the first time the stealthy Pegasus has been abused by governments for purposes other than preventing and investigating crimes, Citizen Lab said it is the first time a minor has been targeted with infection attempts using governmental spyware. Why target a kid? To spy on his mother.

Mexico is already “one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Reporters covering sensitive issues often face threats of kidnapping, intimidation, or physical violence as a result of their work.” But organized criminal groups aren’t the only ones trying to intimidate journalists; one report revealed that at least half of the threats were linked to government officials. Since sophisticated spyware is designed to stay “invisible,” and even self-destruct to avoid detection, the digital surveillance can be hard to document.

Yet Citizen Lab’s newest report about the reckless use of NSO surveillance spyware explains how 10 Mexican journalists and human rights defenders, as well as one minor child, were targeted. Citizen Lab’s investigation, in collaboration with three other groups, revealed:

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