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. Those targeted include Carmen Aristegui, a prominent journalist; Juan Pardinas, the director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness; and the team of international experts heading the inquiry into the disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, in 2014.
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 of a target’s house.
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.
Even in a country where private surveillance scandals are relatively commonplace, this episode appears to have crossed a line, sparking widespread outcry. The reports have also provoked calls for investigations of the hacking, which would determine the identities of all the targets, who carried out the operation, what authorization they had, and how long it had been going on.
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. While all but the most naive criminal groups were already aware of the government’s capacity to monitor cell phone communications, the reporting gives gangs a precise outline of agencies’ capacity and tactics.
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.
The government has also presented criminal groups with a major public relations coup by ceding the moral high ground. Security strategy in many parts of Mexico often boils down to convincing locals to support the government forces and deny entrenched criminal organizations the space they need to operate. This, in turn, requires that local citizens view the government as a legitimate and preferable alternative to domination by criminal gangs.
Allegations that the government resorts to authoritarian practices — whether preying on civilian populations or spying on them — thwarts this objective. The current scandal undermines the government’s claims to inherent legitimacy, instead showing that state actors are as likely to abuse their power as are criminal groups. If the official bodies act like just crime groups, then citizens cannot be blamed for withdrawing their cooperation.
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The spying reports, which reflect an extensive and labor-intensive surveillance operation, also reveal a fundamentally unsound approach to crime policy. There is inevitably a sense of tension between the government and its critics in the media and human rights community. But a mature, truly democratic administration would recognize that the media is not an enemy. On the contrary, a well-informed society with access to an aggressive free press serves as a bulwark against criminal takeovers of state agencies. The fact that the Peña Nieto administration appears not to recognize this not only reveals its authoritarian tendencies, but also explains its inability to make significant headway on Mexico’s security challenges.
A government that expends such resources to spy on the media and on human rights activists is one that is comfortable wasting time and effort. It is one that cannot distinguish friend from foe, and is clueless in its handling of public opinion. It is one that is unable to adhere to democratic principles while attacking organized crime, and allows itself to sink to the moral level of its criminal adversaries.
This is but one more piece of evidence pointing to the Peña Nieto administration’s wrongheaded approach to Mexico’s security problems.