Mexico's cyber security campaign launch in 2017

Authorities in Mexico are reportedly misusing surveillance technology to spy on activists and critics of the government, raising questions about the effectiveness of laws and oversight mechanisms surrounding the use of tools intended to help fight crime.

Over the past several years, "at least three Mexican federal agencies have purchased about $80 million worth of spyware created by an Israeli cyberarms manufacturer," the New York Times reported on June 19.

The spyware, known as Pegasus, is manufactured by an Israeli firm called the NSO Group and is sold exclusively to governments. It can penetrate an individual's smartphone to track calls, read texts and emails, and exploit the microphone and camera features for surveillance.

Sold under the premise that it would be used specifically for monitoring criminal groups and terrorists, the New York Times found that Mexican authorities are instead allegedly using the Pegasus software to spy on "human rights lawyers, journalists and anti-corruption activists."

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

A report from the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab and Mexican non-governmental organization Digital Rights Defense Network (Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales - R3D), released the same day as the Times article, appears to back up the newspaper's findings. The report details more than 70 cases of espionage against journalists and human rights activists in Mexico "with links to NSO Group's exploit framework."

The Mexican government's use of spyware has been questioned before, but the New York Times noted that "there is no ironclad proof that the Mexican government is responsible" for the reported spying incidents.

Nevertheless, while the surveillance of private communications can only be authorized by a federal judge under Mexican law, "several former Mexican intelligence officials" told the New York Times that "illegal surveillance is standard practice."

InSight Crime Analysis

Reports that Mexican officials are misusing high-tech anti-crime tools to spy on political opponents raise concerns that a lack of effective oversight has contributed to these potentially useful technologies being perverted for corrupt purposes.

The use of high-tech surveillance has at times been successful, such as in the capture of former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. But experts have increasingly called attention to loose enforcement of laws on surveillance across Latin America that have allowed cyber security technology to land in the hands of corrupt officials, effectively enhancing their capacity to facilitate or commit crimes.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

For example, former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli is accused of ordering illegal surveillance on nearly 150 political opponents and businesses during his 2009 to 2014 term in office, using the same Pegasus software that was deployed in Mexico. And in Colombia, key members of former president Álvaro Uribe's administration were convicted of illegally wiretapping opposition politicians, judges, human rights activists and journalists. The South American country's electronic surveillance practices were also questioned in a 2015 report, which alleged that Colombia had established a loosely-regulated "shadow mass surveillance system" with help from US, European and Israeli companies.

Concerningly, authorities in Mexico are ramping up the use of electronic surveillance technology. The number of legal phone taps approved by Mexico's Attorney General's Office increased by nearly 50 percent between 2013 and 2016, and authorities have issued thousands of requests to internet companies during that time frame requesting user information. While these technologies can be powerful tools for law enforcement, they have repeatedly been misused by corrupt officials -- a dynamic that past experience suggests Mexico will have a tough time combating.

Investigations

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