Recent revelations about the government of Mexico’s widespread use of spyware to monitor adversaries in the press and the human rights community represent a gift for organized crime.
The New York Times first reported in June that Mexican journalists, lawyers, human-rights activists and their families had been targeted by government-owned spyware, which would allow eavesdroppers to monitor virtually all aspects of their digital communications.
The computer program reportedly used deceptive and highly personalized messages to lure targets into activating the spyware. These include contaminated links purporting to deal with a visa issue, claims of proof that a spouse was having an affair, and warnings about a commando squad outside a target’s house.
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According to the Times, NSO Group, the Israeli company that manufactures the software, sold it to the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto under the condition that it be deployed only against terrorists and criminal groups. The government has not confirmed that it used the software to target the reporters and activists, but experts have been virtually unanimous in declaring government agencies the only plausible authors of the hacking.
InSight Crime Analysis
This latest scandal from the Peña Nieto administration represents a massive self-inflicted wound in its fight against organized crime.
Most immediately, the revelations give criminal groups an invaluable window into the government’s anti-crime operations. At the very least, this is a warning to drug traffickers as well as their lawyers, money launderers and business partners to avoid electronic communications, and to be on guard against phishing attempts.
For more sophisticated organizations, knowledge of the identity of the company behind the Pegasus software, and the details about the software itself, could provide clues that allow it to be countered. The exposure of the Peña Nieto administration’s activities is akin to telling an adversary not only where an imminent attack is to come, but also detailing the makeup of the invading force.