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Report: Mexico Pretended To Be U.S. So It Could Hack Into Journalists’ Phones

The Mexican government has been allegedly spying on journalists and activists by sending them text messages with secret viruses, according to a new report.

The Citizen Lab, an arm of the University of Toronto, furthered a longer term investigation into the country’s alleged targeting tactics, along with non-governmental organizations focused on freedom of expression, like Article 19, R3D, and SocialTic.

The consortium said they found more than 76 infected messages sent to Mexican journalists, lawyers, and even a minor between January 2015 and July 2016. The targets are people who have been conducting their own investigations into the Mexican government’s alleged corruption and participation in human rights abuses. Some of the text message operators tried impersonating the U.S. Embassy to Mexico to feign legitimacy. At least one of the targets, according to Citizen Lab, received a malware-infected message that feigned to be from the U.S. government and had a listed location within the confines of America. At least one other target was reportedly a U.S. citizen.

Once a phone is infected, the malware known as Pegasus can take over a phone and essentially use it as a tool to constantly spy on an unsuspecting owner. An infected mobile device can then be reconfigured to record audio and even trigger the phone’s video recoding capabilities.

Another alleged tactic of the operators of the malware is sending “upsetting personal messages,” which include “crude sexual taunts and accusations,” “promises of nude pictures of a partner or spouse,” “fake stories about leaks of affairs and leaked sexual videos,” and “death or loss of family members.”

Citizen Lab says such messages were clear attempts to play on the emotions of the targets.

“For example, journalists Rafael Cabrera & Salvador Camarena each separately received an identical message on the exact same day purporting to show someone having sex with their spouses,” Citizen Lab wrote.

Other tailored but phony messages include fake notifications of problems with visa statuses, kidnappings of work colleagues, or recently filed defamation lawsuits. (RELATED: Roughly Half Of People Click On Infected Links Even After Knowing Risks)

The Israeli firm that created Pegasus says it only sells the cyber tool to governments, who are contractually obligated to solely use it on terrorists, drug cartels, or other criminal groups, according to The New York Times.

“We are the new enemies of the state,” Juan E. Pardinas, the general director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, who has championed anti-corruption legislation, told The New York Times. He and his wife have both reportedly been targeted. “Ours is a society where democracy has been eroded.” (RELATED: How The CIA Turned An American Pastime Into A Global Spying Apparatus)

Journalists and human rights advocates have been preyed upon before in Mexico, but it is not always clear who the culprit is.

Gunmen in Mexico reportedly broke into a home in May and murdered a woman known for being an activist for parents of missing children.

Miriam Elizabeth Rodriguez Martinez, who helped solve her own daughter’s murder mystery, died on her way to the hospital after being shot multiple times on the official Mother’s Day in Mexico.

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