The hacking software used by Ricardo Martinelli’s government to spy on political adversaries, journalists and critics of his administration made headlines once again. This time in regards to Mexico, courtesy of an extensive reportage published this past weekend on the front page of The New York Times (NYT).
“Mexico’s most prominent human rights lawyers, journalists and anti-corruption activists have been targeted by advanced spyware sold to the Mexican government on the condition that it be used only to investigate criminals and terrorists”. That’s the lede used by the North American newspaper, referring to the software created by the Israeli company NSO Group. The cyberarms manufacturer claims that they verify each country’s human rights history before selling them the espionage software.
But, in the light of what has been discovered, the exam appears to be superficial. In Mexico, the list of those that have been spied includes, for example, lawyers that were investigating the disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa; an economist that helped draft a bill against corruption, two of the country’s most influential journalists and an American citizen who represents victims of sexual abuse committed by the Mexican police.
In Panama, during Ricardo Martinelli’s government, those who were spied fit a very similar profile: lawyers, political adversaries, journalists (among them, some from La Prensa), etc. The same North American newspaper published, in 2010, a story that revealed Martinelli’s demands to use Matador, a wiretapping program to spy on political adversaries, even threatening to expel the DEA from Panama if the United States removed its equipment from the Security Council. Martinelli even warned that he would gladly replace the DEA with services from Israel.
According to The New York Times, three federal agencies from Mexico have spent around 80 million dollars in espionage programs from the Israeli company. Meanwhile, in Panama, a little over 8 million dollars has been traced indirectly connecting the Panamanian government –through intermediaries as friends and close acquaintances of the former President- to the bank transactions distant from what is considered to be the conventional way in which a State pays for services and equipment.
The Citizen Lab
The NYT investigation coincides with a publication made yesterday by The Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, Canada focusing on advanced research and development at the intersection of Information and Communication Technologies, human rights, and global security.
The report points that over 76 messages with traces of the NSO Group software were sent to journalists, lawyers and even to a teenager. The Citizen Lab revealed that the spied targets were working on subjects that include investigations of corruption by the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, and the participation of Mexican federal authorities in human rights abuse.
For the spy software to be activated, the targets received messages that simulated being from the Embassy of The United States in Mexico, while others were fake missing child alerts even when one of the targets – the teenager- was in the United States, the report points out.
The Citizen Lab is the same laboratory that described the operations of another manufacturer of spy software from Milan, Italia. Those products were also acquired by Ricardo Martinelli’s government in 2011. Colombia and Mexico are among the countries that, besides Panama, have used their hacking technology.
Like with NSO Group, The Hacking Team advertised its program as untraceable. The software was known as Da Vinci, in its commercial form, or as Remote Control System (RCS). It was a solution designed to evade inscription via spy software that has to be directly installed in the device under surveillance.
Da Vinci gathered data on the devices and would then transmit them from the same cellphone to RCS servers, which were untraceable. The Italian company guaranteed, in that way, that neither the purchase of their equipment nor the information gathered from the victims/targets could be linked to any specific government. The trace would only lead to a ghost company. That is to say, the same that was done by the Israeli company NSO Group when they sold the equipment to Panama.
NYT contacted the manufacturer – NSO Group– who said that their equipment is sold exclusively to governments under the condition that they only use it to combat terrorist, criminal groups or drug cartels, like the ones that have caused violence in Mexico for a long time.
But the messages studied by the NYT and by independent forensic analysts have something in common: traces that Pegasus software “has been used against some of the government’s most outspoken critics and their families”.
According to the newspaper, the use of spy software by the Mexican Government against opponents and activists has long been suspected, although there isn’t definite proof that the government is responsible. Pegasus leaves behind no traces of the hacker, NSO Group even points out that it cannot be determined exactly who was behind any specific hacking attempt. That is their version.
However, cyber experts can verify the moment the software was used in the phone of a target, which leaves little doubt as to the involvement of the Mexican Government or of some corrupt intern group, reveals the NYT’s investigation.
The manufacturer indicates that it’s unlikely that cybercriminals can gain access to Pegasus because the program can only be used by governmental agencies in which it has been previously installed. Before any installation, NSO Group assures that they verify each potential client and their history with human rights. But once the license is granted and the software is installed there is no way to know how the tools are used and against whom.
NSO Group claims that even if they knew that their software was being used wrongly, there is little they can do about it: they cannot enter the intelligence agencies, remove the program and take the equipment. NSO Group trusts that their clients will cooperate with an internal inspection that the company would perform to then deliver the results to the competent legal authority. Meaning the governments would end up being responsible for monitoring themselves, points the NYT.
The company only charges their clients according to the number of targets they which to keep an eye on. For example, to spy on then iPhone users the manufacturer charges $650,000 besides a $500,000 fee for installation, according to commercialization proposals reviewed by NYT.
Nevertheless –according to the newspaper– in Mexico’s case NSO Group has not recognized any abuse of the program, even if evidence has been presented on several occasions, evidence that proves that their tools have been used against common citizens and their families.
The Mexican President has been the target of criticisms after forgetting his campaign promises and because of the scandals he has been involved in, like the disappearance of 43 students after a confrontation with police forces. He has also been criticized because he and his wife acquired a luxurious house of a contractor than then afterward received numerous contracts for state works.
Those scandals have torn down the image Peña Nieto had as a candidate, when he sold himself as an energetic politician, willing to work alongside other political parties to modernize and push Mexico forward. Now the politician’s image resembles that of a corrupt public servant that is not aware of the reality Mexicans live in. The change, according to the NYT, is in a good part due to the work that was done by Mexican journalists to reveal the corruption cases as well as the work of activists and human rights advocates who have not allowed for them to be forgotten.
Journalists, the victims
Maybe no other Mexican journalist has damaged the reputation of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto than Carmen Aristegui. Few have paid as costly because of doing so.
She and her team divulged, in 2014, the scandal of “the white house” that involved a special arrangement for the First Lady by a government contractor that had an old relationship with Peña Nieto.
The discovery made international news and, as a consequence, the First Lady was forced to give the house back. Peña Nieto was exculpated and Aristegui lost her job a fact that –according to the newspaper– was the beginning of the harassment and defamation against the journalist: lawsuits, raids of her offices, threats to her personal security and the surveillance of her movements.
“It’s an act of vengeance because of the reportage,” Aristegui claimed in a recent interview. “There is no other way to see it”.
The Martinelli case
During a press conference yesterday Arsitegui talked about the case of former President Ricardo Martinelli, who faces proceedings in Panama due to espionage, a circumstance that Aristegui categorized as a “first cousin” of what happened in Mexico. Martinelli’s proceedings accuse him of using public resources to spy on 150 people, including critics, opponents, leaders, businessmen and indigenous leaders.
“The authorities of Panama’s Public Ministry, judicial authorities of Panama, have accused their former president because of illegal political espionage. Panama’s institutions took the corresponding steps, activating Interpol, who acted in The United Stated and had the collaboration of American police forces to detain Martinelli in Miami,” the Mexican journalist explained.
The journalist expects that authorities investigate the case so they can avoid any similar situations in the future.
Other victims of espionage by the NSO Group software were Juan Pardinas, General Director of the Mexican Institute For Competitiveness, as well as his wife; Mario Patrón, Executive Director of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juarez Center, the respected human rights defense organization as well as lawyers that work on the clarification of the disappearance of 43 students.