Pegasus spyware used to target top Mexican human rights official - NYT

This breach not only compromises his personal information but also jeopardizes the integrity of his investigations.

 Illustrative image of a hacker. (photo credit: FLICKR)
Illustrative image of a hacker.
(photo credit: FLICKR)

Mexico's top human rights official, Alejandro Encinas, has become the latest victim of the notorious Pegasus spyware, raising alarming concerns about surveillance and privacy violations. Encinas, who has been investigating abuses by the country's military, was repeatedly targeted by the spyware, as confirmed by independent forensic analysis and accounts from individuals familiar with the hacking, according to The New York Times.

This revelation marks a significant blow to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's commitment to ending illegal surveillance. The fact that such a senior member of the administration, particularly someone in close proximity to the president, has been closely monitored by Pegasus further underscores the unchecked nature of surveillance activities in Mexico.

Reports in 2021 by the Associated Press that the software, developed by Israel-based NSO Group was used to hack the phones of government critics, including a senator for the largest opposition party, have drawn accusations that security services are eroding democratic norms.

Pegasus, a spyware licensed exclusively to government agencies, has been predominantly associated with the military. While it is unclear which specific agency was behind the attack on Encinas, multiple sources suggest that the military is the sole entity in Mexico with access to this powerful surveillance tool. In fact, the Mexican military has targeted more cell phones using Pegasus than any other government agency worldwide.

Encinas's longstanding conflict with the armed forces, particularly in relation to the mass disappearance of 43 students, adds further complexity to this incident. His cellphone has been infected multiple times, granting hackers unrestricted access to his digital life. This breach not only compromises his personal information but also jeopardizes the integrity of his investigations and poses a threat to human rights defenders and journalists associated with his work.

Illustrative image of a computer hacker (credit: INGIMAGE)Illustrative image of a computer hacker (credit: INGIMAGE)

International outrage

Although previous cases of Pegasus targeting journalists and democracy advocates in Mexico have triggered international outrage, the magnitude of the attacks on Encinas is unprecedented.

The fact that someone of his stature and proximity to the president can be targeted underscores the absence of democratic control over the use of this spyware. The military's extensive powers and lack of democratic oversight contribute to a troubling landscape of unchecked surveillance.

Neither Alejandro Encinas, President López Obrador, nor the Mexican defense ministry have responded to requests for comment on these revelations.

Pegasus is capable of infecting phones without leaving any trace and extracting sensitive information, including emails, text messages, photos, and even audio captured by the device's microphone. Encinas discovered the extent of the infections through Citizen Lab, an independent watchdog group that conducted a forensic analysis of his phone. Evidence also suggests that Pegasus infiltrated the phones of two government officials collaborating with Encinas on inquiries into rights violations by the armed forces.

Israeli NSO Group launched an investigation into cyberattacks

NSO Group, the Israeli manufacturer of Pegasus, has launched an investigation into cyberattacks on human rights defenders in Mexico following recent reports by The New York Times on the military's use of the spyware. NSO Group has also initiated an inquiry into the attacks on Encinas and his colleagues in response to inquiries from The Times.

In a statement, NSO Group emphasized that it does not operate individual Pegasus systems but investigates credible allegations of misuse. The company's previous investigations have resulted in terminating contracts involving the improper use of their technologies.

This hacking incident puts both Alejandro Encinas and President López Obrador in a challenging position. Earlier this year, Encinas met with the president to discuss the surveillance issue and the possibility of going public with the information. However, Encinas has remained silent about his Pegasus infection since then.

As Encinas's investigation into the mass disappearance of the students faced scrutiny, including allegations of invalidated evidence, he became the target of criticism and legal action from military officials implicated in the case. Nevertheless, President López Obrador has expressed unwavering support for Encinas, describing him as an exemplary public servant deserving of trust.

The relationship between Encinas and López Obrador, once close political allies, has encountered differences regarding the growing influence of the military. Under López Obrador's leadership, the armed forces have expanded their authority significantly, gaining control over policing and various other activities. Encinas has been one of the few voices within the administration willing to criticize the military's increased power.

Despite mounting evidence of the military's misuse of Pegasus, President López Obrador continues to deny any spying activities. He maintains that the armed forces respect human rights and have abandoned past surveillance practices.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense licenses the sale of Pegasus to government agencies under the condition that it is used solely for combating severe crime or terrorism. NSO Group is currently investigating whether the use of Pegasus in Mexico violated these agreements.

With lawsuits filed against NSO Group by Apple and Meta, the pressure is mounting for the company to demonstrate its adherence to rules and prevent abuse. Confirmation from NSO Group that Alejandro Encinas and others were targeted without legitimate justification by the Mexican military could result in the immediate termination of the institution's access to Pegasus.

Publicly, President López Obrador's stance remains unchanged. Following reports of the Mexican military's extensive use of Pegasus, he asserted that the armed forces respect human rights and no longer engage in spying activities. However, the revelations surrounding Encinas's targeting cast doubt on these assertions and highlight the urgent need for transparency and accountability in surveillance practices.

Reuters contributed to this report.