MEXICO CITY (AP) — The widow of a renowned Mexican journalist murdered two years ago was the target of an attempted spyware attack 10 days after his death, an internet watchdog group reported Wednesday.
The Toronto-based Citizen Lab said the attempt to place Pegasus spy software targeted Griselda Triana, the widow of Javier Valdez, bringing to 25 the number of known cases involving the spyware in Mexico — including two of Valdez’s colleagues at the Riodoce weekly in the northern state of Sinaloa.
The other two attempted hacks took place the day after Valdez’s killing on May 15, 2017, and it remains unclear who carried them out or for what purpose.
Pegasus allows for monitoring of devices and their content, including the remote activation of cameras and microphones without users’ knowledge.
Israeli company NSO, which licenses Pegasus, said Wednesday in a statement attributed to a spokesperson that it provides its technologies only “to highly vetted intelligence and law enforcement agencies for the sole purpose of fighting terrorism and crime.”
NSO declined to discuss whether any specific country has used its products, but said usage outside those purposes “is considered a misuse and will be investigated.”
But in 2017, Citizen Lab made public the results of an investigation that found that some of Mexico’s most prominent journalists had been targeted by the spyware.
The watchdog has also reported Pegasus being used to target human rights activists, politicians, investigators and in one case a minor.
“We can add Griselda’s name to the growing list of family members of cartel-linked killings, and their advocates, who demanded justice and got targeted with Pegasus instead,” said John Scott-Railton, one of the report’s authors.
“I am not a criminal or a terrorist but I have been a target of spying because I was Javier’s partner,” Triana said. “What reasons were there to spy on me? Neither I nor my family or criminals, and I am sure that I do not represent any danger to national security.”
She speculated that a possible motive may have been to try to discredit investigations into the murder of Valdez, said she would file a complaint and called on the new government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to clear up the case.
The government of then-President Enrique Pena Nieto denied any illegal use of the spyware, and though it began an investigation, it remains unknown who targeted the people in Mexico
Citizen Lab’s first report on Pegasus in Mexico was released in early 2017 and documented cases from the previous two years. The attempts to hack Triana and the Riodoce journalists shows that the strategy continued to be employed after it became public.
Now investigators say it apparently continued to be active through September 2018, just a few months before Pena Nieto’s government concluded on Dec. 1 and more than a year after federal prosecutors announced the investigation.
In Triana’s case, she reportedly received a text message that mentioned a possible theory about her husband’s murder: that he was purportedly killed in a bid to steal his phone.
Triana, a journalist who works for the Autonomous University of Sinaloa, did not open the message because it seemed absurd — she had been in close contact with investigators at the time. Nor did she open a second message seemingly alluding to her being the target of harassment.
Most of the 25 in Mexico said to be targeted with Pegasus were critics of the government or people in crucial moments of investigations: journalists denouncing corruption cases, activists proposing restrictions on sugary drinks, even foreign experts with diplomatic status looking into the disappearance of 43 teachers’ college students in 2014 at the hands of police allegedly in league with organized crime.
The malicious messages purported to have news related to the targets’ work or referenced their personal lives, such as alluding to the death of a loved one or a romantic relationship.
Citizen Lab has documented the use of Pegasus in other countries with dubious human rights records, such as Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
NSO said its products have a proven record of helping governments combat things like suicide bombings, drug and sex trafficking and kidnapping.
“Citizen Lab’s latest non-scientific, non-data driven report builds upon their ongoing guesswork regarding NSO technology,” the company said. “This group has accused NSO of every possible wrongdoing, when the truth of the matter is that our technology helps save lives.”