(Economist) Hacking the hacks: Is Mexico’s government spying on its critics?

(Economist) An investigation finds spyware on the phones of journalists and activists.

MEXICANS do not trust their government. Just 29% have some confidence in the institution, according to Latinobarómetro, a polling firm. A report in the New York Times on June 19th, widely broadcast by the Mexican media, must have reduced that number. It said that software sold to the government to spy on suspected criminals had turned up on the mobile phones of journalists and human-rights campaigners who criticise the government perfectly legally.

Investigations by the Times, Citizen Lab (a research centre in Toronto) and three NGOs named 15 people, most of them critics of the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose phones were found to have the spyware. They include Carmen Aristegui, a journalist who helped uncover a controversial purchase of a house by Mr Peña’s wife from a government contractor. Another target was employees of Centro Prodh, a human-rights group that represents the families of 43 students who disappeared in 2014. Many Mexicans excoriated Mr Peña for what they saw as his limp response to this crime, which reportedly involved local police and drug gangsters.

The software, called Pegasus, is sold by an Israeli firm, NSO Group, to governments that agree to use it only to fight crime. It is activated when an unsuspecting person clicks on a link in a text message. Pegasus then gets access to all the data on the phone, including calls, texts and photos. No one knows who authorised the targeting of journalists and activists. The Mexican army, the attorney-general’s office and the intelligence services have all bought the software. To snoop legally, any government agency would need warrants from a court; there is no evidence that any were issued. The government denies that it targeted non-criminals and notes that the report provides no information on who authorised the eavesdropping attempts.

This will not lessen the outrage. The spying on journalists victimises a profession already under assault by criminal gangs. More than 125 have been killed or disappeared in Mexico since 2000; at least five have been murdered so far this year. On June 21st the opposition National Action Party claimed that attempts had been made to hack the phones of four of its leaders. The government has so far not said it will investigate why the phones of law-abiding citizens have been tapped. If anger grows, it may have no choice.