US lawmakers ask Mexican government for updates on spyware probe
US lawmakers ask Mexican government for updates on spyware probe

Nine months after the Mexican government was found to be using spyware intended for surveillance of terrorists and criminals to spy on journalists, activists and human rights lawyers, US lawmakers have sent a letter to Mexico's US Ambassador Geronimo Gutierrez, calling for a comprehensive and transparent probe into the operation.

“We believe that it is imperative that the Government of Mexico carry out a serious, transparent, thorough, and impartial investigation into the illegal use of spyware, and bring to justice any public official or government agency involved in the matter,” Reps. Don Beyer, D-Va., Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., Michael E. Capuano, D-Mass., Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, James P. McGovern, D-Mass., Mark Pocan, D-Wis., Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and José E. Serrano, D-N.Y., wrote in the letter.

Federal agencies in Mexico purchased around US$ 80 million (£56.5 million) of Pegasus software from the Israeli firm NSO Group since 2011 and has used it, in part, to target those dedicated to protecting human rights, including an academic responsible for writing legislation to thwart corruption, according to a report by Citizen Lab.

The group said in February 2017, working in conjunction with Mexican non-governmental organisations R3D and SocialTic, it previously detailed how links were sent to government food scientists, consumer advocates and health advocates, apparently in an attempt to get them to install Pegasus on their phones. In the expanded report released this week, the groups show “how 10 Mexican journalists and human rights defenders, one minor child and one United States citizen, were targeted with NSO's Exploit Framework,” according to a release. With the help of R3D and SocialTic as well as Article 19, Citizen's Lab said it has “confirmed over 76 additional messages containing NSO exploit links.”

The organisation said, “some of the messages impersonated” the US Embassy to Mexico while “others masqueraded as emergency AMBER Alerts about abducted children.”

The software, which the NSO Group says it sells exclusively to government groups after extracting a guarantee that it will only be used to investigate drug cartels, terrorists and other criminal elements, can be used to monitor smartphones and turn devices with microphones and cameras into surveillance tools.  

“We respectfully request that you provide us with information regarding the Government of Mexico's plans to address the concerns of the spyware victims, guarantee that all lines of investigation outlined [in this letter] are exhausted, and ensure that victims and their lawyers are kept informed of the progress in the case,” the lawmakers wrote. “As an important neighbour and ally, we thank you for your ongoing efforts to make human rights and the freedom of expression top priorities and we look forward to working with you to continue to strengthen the US-Mexico relationship.”